Illustration by Dan Draper

The User Experience of American Democracy

Are our broken politics a design problem?

I have an admission to make: I can’t keep up with politics.

“…wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” — Thomas Jefferson

Consider the number of political offices that the well-informed citizen is expected to follow. Thanks to the gargantuan size of the United States and the federalist system intended to connect people with government, Americans must keep tabs on a daunting array of offices. Each office is governed by a unique set of rules and endowed with a unique set of powers. Most of us are represented by a city council member, a state house representative, a state senator, a U.S. representative in the house, and two U.S. senators. That’s just the legislative branches. In the executive branches, voters must generally choose a mayor, a county executive, a state attorney general, a treasurer, a secretary of state, a governor, a lieutenant governor, and the president of the United States. If you’re counting, that’s roughly 14 offices with plenty more in judgeships, public defenders, transit boards, and local school systems.

The electoral college map if “Did not vote” had been a candidate in the 2016 election. Source
If American Democracy was a website.

To Signal From Noise

In January of 2018, amidst rising tensions with North Korea, residents of Hawaii awoke to an incoming ballistic missile warning that concluded, “This is not a drill.” For a full 38 minutes, 1.4 million people believed their lives would soon be over. They called loved ones to say goodbye. Some hid in storm drains.

Hawaii’s emergency alert system, featuring both the real and test ballistic missile alert options.
Spring and Fall (1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins, written using continuous script (left)

Design for America

Fortunately, some have seen this challenge to democracy and produced bold new interfaces for exploring election information. Perhaps the most ambitious is BallotReady, a nonpartisan and personalized guide to your ballot. BallotReady focuses its efforts on the local races and ballot initiatives for which clear, reliable information is the most difficult to find.

Curious person.