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Connecting People with Policy

Dana Chisnell explains why voting has never been safer (and more important) than it is today. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

In a year filled with turbulence, voting became one of the most embroiled, complex, and vital acts of 2020.

States across the country introduced new ways for folks to cast their ballots safely in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Meanwhile, elected leaders—including those in the highest office in the land—sowed distrust and fear in the integrity of our election.

Even now, millions of Americans harbor doubts about our electoral process. These doubts cast a looming shadow—one that reached the U.S. Capitol in the form of an insurrection fomented by conspiracy theories and demagoguery.

And yet, voting remains one of the most—if not the most—powerful tools everyday citizens have at their disposal in enacting real, tangible change. It’s more important than ever that government leaders understand how everyday citizens vote, why they don’t, and how to make the process better.

Dana Chisnell co-founded the Center for Civic Design (CCD) to explore that process and connect the things they learn with the people who can make it better. In fact, she’s dedicated her career to bringing a human-centered approach to public policy.

Now, at the heels of democracy-shaking sedition and record-breaking public distrust in the voting process, her work is more essential than ever.

“Every day is a civics lesson,” she likes to remind the world. Indeed, these lessons could not reach us at a more critical juncture. That’s why we took some time to sit down with Dana and talk to her about voting in America today, how we can improve it, and how safe and secure the 2020 election really was.

Although there are certainly people out there claiming that there was a lot of fraud in the 2020 election, there was not. This was the most secure election in the history of the United States.

Dana Chisnell

I know you’ve been busy recently considering the work you do. So I’m wondering now: how was the election for you?

A lot of my civic design career has been working on voting in elections. An important detail on that is that it’s about how the government part works—not the campaigns or the politics. People often get confused about the difference between politics and government. There is actually a big gap.

Every four years leading up to the presidential election, a lot of people have a lot of questions about how things work. This year it felt like I was everybody's election mom. I answered a lot of questions about how elections work. And things were very different this year in so many ways because of COVID.

You left the Center for Civic Design in January of 2020. Was that out of some sort of amazing foresight of what the year would be like?

[laughs] I left because I had a couple of opportunities that I wanted to explore. One of my focuses at CCD had been on large qualitative research projects. There were a few over the years that turned out to be important to the practice generally like understanding the questions that people actually have about elections instead of the questions that election officials think people have.

We (CCD) mapped the journey of American voters for the first time ever. We have an article on Medium called the “Epic Journey of American Voters,” and Oxide Design helped us create a visualization that you can download as a poster. Turns out that, over the years, the questions are the same from voters from major election to major election—but the order changes depending on what else is happening in the world.

The “expected path” of the American voter (Click to enlarge).

A big thing that was different this year is that there was so much more early voting and more availability of voting by mail. That changes the rules a lot for people. There's a burden because you have to learn what the deadlines are and what the process is.

If you're just used to voting at the polling place, it's like being in a different election. And so this year, because so many people voted by mail for the first time, it's basically tens of millions more first-time voters than normal.

There are so many different ways we vote in this country, state by state and even precinct to precinct. How did you map the voting process?

It was years of research. It started with a study that I did with Cyd Harrell and a bunch of other people. I think there were 30 people total on this project on the research side in 2012, leading up to the presidential election.

We wanted to ask two questions: What are the questions that people actually have about elections? And can they find the answers to those questions on their local election website?

At the time, most people didn't even know that elections were run at the county level in most places. [Most didn’t know] that there's a person who does that and that there's a website that you can go to and get voting information. We had this protocol where we actually reviewed 145 County election websites. Then we recruited people to basically do usability tests. We asked participants what their big questions were, and then we asked them to try to find their answers on their local website. We could draw some conclusions from that.

There were also a couple of other projects over the years where we looked at where people find information about voting and elections. The study that Whitney Quesenbery and I founded CCD on asked, for people on the low end of a propensity to vote, what are their information challenges?

We strung all of those things from those studies and others together from the bits of insights that we got from each one and realized that we could come up with at least a preliminary picture of what was happening.

When you look at the visualization, you see that there are about 10 steps. Those are based on what election officials believe that you should know and what they think the process is. That starts with voter registration and ends with checking the results. But people don't typically go through it in that order, so our visualization compared where people start in real life to what election administrators think the process is.

That’s so fascinating. Where do people start?

Where regular people start is with what's on the ballot. This is how they're making a decision about am I even going to take part? Is there something worthwhile for me to spend my time and energy learning enough to make an informed decision?

And so, especially for local elections, people have a hard time getting enough information to make a decision. That is one of the major drivers for not taking part. But for presidential elections, there's a much heavier lift in a way, because if you care about anything that looks like policy—from healthcare, to employment, to marriage, to climate—you're going to want to know what the candidates care about to help you make a decision.

Fortunately, there's a lot more information available to you for a presidential election than there is for others. But that's where people start: with what's on the ballot.

The “happy path” of an American voter (Click to enlarge).

2020 was a unique year—understatement of the century, I know. But how has the way people approach the voting process changed since you began researching this space?

From the research that I’ve done, voters very consistently over many years have started by saying, “Okay, I know there's an election coming up. What is happening in the election that I care about that I want to invest in?” That's always the starting point. The thing that's been different is the election administration part.

What are your options for getting a ballot, marking it, and casting it? Until about 2010, there wasn't very much early voting at all in the US. Leading up to 2012 and then in elections after that, early voting has just grown quite a bit. For example, I live in Massachusetts, and we didn't have any early voting until a few years ago, officially.

The other big part of this is the ability to vote by mail. Western states like Oregon have had vote by mail for more than 25 years now. Most of California is vote by mail with 70% of voters in California voting that way. Colorado, Hawaii, and Utah are all vote-by-mail states now, too.

But other states make that less available. If you want to vote by mail in Virginia, you have to have one of 19 excuses. I'm not exaggerating, that is actually the number of excuses that you can have that allow you to vote by mail [at the time of the interview].

The “burdened voter” path (Click to enlarge).

Like you choose it from a list?


That's shocking.

The team at the Center for Civic Design designed the form for applying to vote by mail in Virginia. Meanwhile, we were hoping for a future—which did actually come—where the legislature would decide that you could vote by mail without an excuse.

There are all kinds of roadblocks to processes like that. For example, in Alabama, you have to have a witness or have your application notarized.

Fortunately, some of those rules were loosened up quite a bit this year. Although there are certainly people out there claiming that there was a lot of fraud in the 2020 election, there was not. This was the most secure election in the history of the United States.

Election administrators and legislators are going to see the success of that turnout and how well it worked administratively, and either keep that loosening of rules or pass laws that allow more access permanently.

How does the research that you do when working in the public sector or these adjacent organizations lead to—or doesn’t lead to—policy change?

Elections are interesting because there are a lot of options for doing things administratively. There are decisions that can be made at the state level without laws being passed that state election departments and local election departments can just decide to do.

At CCD we worked a lot on forms design. There are a lot of forms in government. While most designers do not think of forms design as a specialty that they might want to pursue, I strongly recommend it. If you have opinions about forms, go learn about forms design, and go do the work—because there's an endless supply.

When we got to what we thought were important insights with forms design, we did a bunch of things: we had a newsletter that we sent out to a big email list of election administrators, we worked directly with them, and we created a lot of free, downloadable templates from the website and promoted those.

But one of the reasons that I left CCD was because I saw this opportunity for moving human-centered design way upstream in the policymaking process. Also with my experience working for the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama White House, I could see that you could do a masterful job of implementing policies through good user-centered design and engineering. But if the original policy was not well thought out or didn't actually solve the problem that it was seeking to solve, you're putting lipstick on a pig. Nobody's going to get the outcomes that they want.

So I've spent the last year working on a few different experiments, including a couple of big research projects to explore how to move human-centered design into policy-making and as far upstream as possible.

Any insight on how to move human-centered design upstream?

It does seem like there is a desire to do that, especially since there are younger legislators who are design aware and tech savvy. A lot of staffers who work for them—in committees, in assemblies, and in the US Congress—came up through tech companies that have user-centered design as part of their world. So when you start talking about applying the same kinds of ideas, they get how they could be applied right away.

There's this middle ground though, where they're not quite ready to do those things. What I've been able to do a little bit over the last year with my partners at Project Redesign, is a couple of big research projects. We could, first of all, invite the community that is most affected and be a part of the project along with people who are making policy decisions. They’ll have exposure to one another and to the research process. That's big. And then generating artifacts that are easily accessible to folks who are not making a tech product, necessarily.

What we wanted to do through the stories was elevate the voices and the real experiences that people are having, and to show people who are designing policy how complicated the lives of regular human beings, who they are elected to serve, really are. That was our big driver: to re-humanize.

Dana Chisnell

You're working with the National Conference on Citizenship as a policy designer. One of your biggest focuses is with Project Redesign. What are your biggest priorities there?

The projects at NCOC are all around civic life in America. And so Project Redesign’s part of that is putting the public back in public policymaking.

Our first year together in this little civic incubator has really been about learning as much as possible—so learning about what the opportunities are for putting the people in the most pain closest to the power, as I and Ayanna Pressley would say. Making a much closer connection between people who are making policy and the people who are feeling the policy.

We worked on a massive research project in the beginning of the pandemic to understand what it's like for people to apply for unemployment benefits during a pandemic. That was a qualitative, story-based research project. We interviewed 33 people in three weeks about what that was like for them, but there were a couple of things that we did that were unusual.

One was that we published stories from the interviews as soon as we had finished them; we didn't go do a ton of analysis and synthesis. We also had readouts to experts and academics and people in communities every week. It was a 30-minute meeting every Monday afternoon where we discussed the big insights from the interviews we did last week.

We also published our research kit: our research plan, interview guide, and all the stuff that we created to get to the insights. A couple of states have picked it up and used it to do their own research in similar spaces.

We also created this community and connected people in different parts of the domain who wouldn't ordinarily talk to one another. So, small steps to bring the public into public policymaking.

And thing two is something we just wrapped up in November: a program with the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub, and a group called the Tech Talent Project, where we ran an eight-week remote, part-time program to prepare people who have been working in tech in the private sector, to go into public service. We have technologists who are human centered, going into government and leadership positions. They can seed an entire culture in an agency and that set of expectations just ripples out to the whole organization.

We had 27 people come to that program and several of them are being interviewed for positions in the Biden-Harris administration, which is exciting.

Why did you take this faster approach to sharing stories?

It was because the data that the people who make policy have is already pretty abstract. They have massive databases that have a ton of quantitative data in it about 20 million people who are unemployed. We know these stats by heart. We felt it was too easy to be mechanistic about what should be in the Cares Act and now what should be in the next stimulus bill.

What we wanted to do through the stories was elevate the voices and the real experiences that people are having, and to show people who are designing policy how complicated the lives of regular human beings, who they are elected to serve, really are. That was our big driver: to re-humanize.

What's a question that you wish people would ask you more?

I wish people would ask me, “How do I get to work in public service?” I think everybody should work in public service for at least a couple of years. It is really different from working in a profit-making or a nonprofit organization. And it is incredibly rewarding at the same time as being the hardest job you will ever do.

How do I get to work in public service?

So almost everybody I know who got started in public service went to one of two channels. One was they intended to do that. They went to policy school or public administration.

The second channel is that it was completely accidental. There was some passion project that they got excited about because there was a cause or an issue that they wanted to go work on. Think of people who might've volunteered to work on their town website or get on their local school board or start showing up at public hearings because there's some local issue that they're upset about. But over the last few years, there have been so many social issues as a country that if you show up at a demonstration somewhere, you may be inspired to get more involved from the public services side.

For the kind of work that I have done inside the government, there are very much people who are like, “The government seems broken. The services are not what they should be to address the kinds of issues that the American public is struggling with. I think I have some tools and skills that can make the government better.” And so one of the first lessons you get is humility because the problems are really hard.

Anything else you want our readers to know?

Register to vote, wear a mask when you leave the house, get the vaccine as soon as possible, and take care of your friends and neighbors.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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