Many State Election Websites Are Called Hard to Use—or Even Find

Three battleground states are among those criticized in a new study for lacking basic services online.

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As Election Day approaches, most of the nearly two thirds of Americans who peruse government websites may be disappointed when they search for voting information.

A report released yesterday on each state's official elections site found that the average site wasn't particularly accessible or effective. Only six states, led by Iowa, scored well on their sites' abilities to be found easily and to provide comprehensive, visible, and useful information. Meanwhile, three battleground states—Georgia. New Mexico, and New Hampshire—were among the 10 lowest performers. (New Hampshire was dead last.)

The most common issue wasn't a lack of information; it was the difficulty of finding it. For some states, even finding the official election sites was a problem. "The average user only spends about two minutes on a Web search before giving up," says Kil Huh, research director at the Pew Center on the States. The official site should appear as the first search result, he says. For 12 states, however, searching for "voting in" and the state's name did not bring up the official site as the first link. One, South Dakota, did not appear on the first page of results at all, according to the report, produced by Pew's Make Voting Work.

The biggest problem, though, was finding facts on the sites themselves. Many states lacked the basic tools needed to help users sort through information.

In the 2006 election cycle, four hotlines that released data about the calls they received said they fielded nearly 70,000 calls from confused voters, three quarters of whom wanted to clarify either where to vote or how to register. Yet today's sites remain hit-or-miss on providing accessible answers to those questions. Only 34 percent of sites had polling place locators, the report found. Of these, two thirds required users to type in personal information and to be already registered to vote to find their polling place.

Meanwhile, half of states did not allow voters to verify their registration online. Only one state, Nevada, featured a poll locator and registration verifier on the home page itself.

Improving state websites won't just reduce voter frustration, experts say. It can cut costs and make the entire voting process run more smoothly. Each hotline call can cost election offices up to $100, money easily saved if the information is online. And making voters aware earlier of whether they're registered and where to go can cut down on confusion and lines at the polls.

Looking at a third party's site for your state's voter information isn't always a good solution, either. "The only place with up-to-date, accurate answers is your election office," says Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Make Voting Work. But if states' election sites don't improve soon, finding the facts from them could be a frustrating process.