Design Politics and civics

How elections website design can lead to voter suppression, part 1

Website and web app design choices can do more than make a site unusable or not useful. They can be agents of digital voter suppression. 

When I analyzed the Washington state VoteWA website this month, I realized that design choices can do more than make a site unusable or not useful. They can be agents of voter suppression.

In other words, analyzing a website or web app for accessibility, valid code, and usability can also provide insight into issues of digital voter suppression. Until this moment, I had focused on how well the county or state site answers voter questions about upcoming elections and how well it conforms to accessibility and usability best practices. That provided a valid if short-sighted review.

In 2018, the Washington Secretary of State embarked on a program to standardize voter management software across all counties.

This walkthrough of the online voter registration and voter lookup system, highlights how the design contributes to digital voter suppression. There are also classic usability and user experience design flaws.

Landing page

Land ing

Although this is what most voters would think of as the home or profile page for their account, it’s not. The only way to see this page is to log in or make extensive use of the back button. Clicking or tapping VoteWA on any subsequent page logs the voter out of the system.

1. Left navigation

Current Election and My Ballot have each been expanded, which can cause confusion. That arrow on the right side of the navigation text signals “click to expand/close this section.” Having two sections expanded leads to the logical question: where am I in this navigation jungle?

Adding to the confusion, the Current Election tab is a slightly different color which implies that this landing page should be the main page of that section. When one navigation tab is a different color from other tabs, that normally signals “this is the section you’re in right now.” On this site, it lies.

2. Page title

The page title appears to be General 2020 Election (11/3/2020) even though the content is more akin to voter profile. King County Elections calls this Registration Information.

GENERAL should not be all caps, which is harder to read than upper and lower case and which is generally interpreted, tone-wise, as shouting.

3. Copyright

Governments cannot copyright public work that is paid for with public dollars.

4. Contact Us

The words promise contact information; the position in the footer implies “clickable”. But the click doesn’t lead to the Washington Secretary of State contact page; instead it leads to the state home page for elections information. Here’s the contact page.


The entire page has been constructed inside a form element. VoteWA, in the upper left, is part of the <nav> section. The left hand navigation is built as form inputs/buttons.

You won’t see an H1 on the page. The text, General 2020 Election (11/3/2020) appears to be the main heading (placement, type weight and size). The browser inspector shows us that is being pulled into the page via javascript, and that it is actually an H3.


Where is the H1?

It’s in a table, positioned above the <div> that contains the navigation section that is the VoteWA logo. And it has a Bootstrap class of sr-only, defined as something 1×1 pixels in size:

{position:absolute;width:1px;height:1px;padding:0;overflow:hidden;clip:rect(0,0,0,0); white-space:nowrap;border:0

There do not appear to be any H2s. This flunks the basic W3C HTML5 check.

Voter Guide


(I cannot bring myself to make voters a possessive.)

We are missing best practice “where am I” signaling. As you can see, the General Election header remains unchanged, although this “page” should be called Voter Guide.

I am logged in, so the system knows that I live in Snohomish Couny. But when I click on “county” (the hyperlink should be more than one word), this is where I land:



Part 2: Digital voter suppression in Voting Centers (and Drop Boxes), Online Ballot, Ballot Status sections of this web application


Featured image: Shutterstock

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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