or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/08

   November 1st, 2008

Election Information iconThis question is kind of predictable, but still very important:

Patron: Do you have a copy of Tuesday's ballot?

We don't, and I'm not even sure they let actual ballots out ahead of time. Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall, but I think only for people voting early, and that's not what the patron wanted. He just wanted to see what choices were going to be on his ballot.

We found two websites that offer this - the Elections Division of the MA Secretary of State's Office, and ImagineElection.com. Both allowed us to type in the patron's street address, and in addition to all of the candidates and questions on the ballot, they gave us the precinct number and polling location.

Beyond this, there were pros and cons to each. The State website is of course reliable, but it also provided a lot more information that ImagineElection. The extras the State provides are:

  • the party of each candidate
  • the running mate for each presidential candidate
  • indicating if a candidate is an incumbent
  • providing a summary of each ballot question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean

ImagineElection.com logoHere's what ImagineElection had going for it:

  • it was way more easy to read

The State site is a no-nonsense utilitarian text listing - which is not surprising for a government website. But that is a sharp contrast to ImagineElection's use of colors and indentions to visually organize the ballot. The overall feel of their site was kind of a web 2.0 generic theme vibe (which made me question its reliability), but the ballot itself was leaps and bounds beyond the State site.

The patron, an older man, thought so, too. However, he preferred the additional information provided on the State site. What would have made both ballots better would have been information about each candidate (or links to information), to help people decide and make educated votes. I'm sure that is a can of worms, and the information is available elsewhere. But it's inclusion here would have made for a much better one-stop-shopping information gathering place for a voter.

So while I'm always happy to see content triumph over design, this is a very clear case of why design is important. I'm not sure where ImagineElection gets there data, but I imagine the additional information could also be included. And it doesn't surprise me that a government website is basic and no-nonsense, but a little html/css formatting could go a long way towards better serving the citizens.

Also: at the risk of sounding like the patriotism police, I want to remind all Americans to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 4th. It's important.

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8 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/08”

  1. Somer Says:

    Here in Texas, we do have sample ballots available. They’re online through individual county’s websites, and we have paper sample ballots available at the library (they are required to be printed on yellow paper).

  2. Sarah W Says:

    In Ohio we also have sample ballots–in fact if you go to the county board of elections webpage, you can enter a specific person’s name and find their polling place AND print off a copy of the actual ballot they will use at that location (since we have lots of local bond issues). I’ve printed these out for quite a few patrons!

    My father lives in Utah, and he also informed me that their board of elections also have the option of seeing what an actual ballot will look like.

  3. Debbie Says:

    When I lived in Washington, D.C., I received a sample ballot in the mail. I live in Virginia now, and I don’t. I really miss it. Instead, I visited the Washington Post, and it not only had all of my candidates, their answers to various questions, but propositions as well. The Virginia Board of Elections website was difficult to navigate and didn’t include the props.

  4. James Says:

    The Sec. of State’s office sent out voter information booklets to the last known address of each registered voter in Massachusetts. The booklet has the exact language of all 3 questions on the ballot and what offices are up for election but not the candidates. If you didn’t get yours check with office to make sure your address information is current for the voting roles.

  5. Katie Fortney Says:

    I like smartvoter.org, from the League of Women Voters. They’re another site that will give you a sample ballot if you enter your address, and they usually include links to candidate websites, news articles, and other helpful stuff. I’ve also seen them submit questions to candidates on their own and then post the answers.

    Unfortunately, it looks like there’s not nearly as much information in their Middlesex County coverage as there is for, say, my county. But keep it on file for next election – maybe they’ll have more.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    I know our Federal system specifically keeps voting a decentralized process, under the control of the states, but it almost seems that a centralized, regulated and consistent process might be better.

    @James: Yes, we do have the Voter Information booklet, which I did give to the patron, but as you indicated, it only covers the ballot questions, not the candidates. Actually, he was looking for something exactly like that, just about the candidates.

    Next election season I’m going to try to work more closely with Town Hall to make sure we’ve got copies of everything available to voters before the election.

    Also, a couple online resources I left out:
    League of Women Voters (Mass)
    FiveThirtyEight.com – Poll projections, not candidates or the issues

  7. Summer Nemeth Says:


    It’s Summer, the creator of Imagine Election. There’s information about the candidates available on Imagine Election – you just need to click the name of a candidate from your ballot, and you’ll see information about their bio and issue positions, as well as a link to their website and any other resources available about them.

    Check it out. And I’ll try to fix the user interface to make this more obvious next time around!


  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Summer: I have no idea how we missed that. I remember clicking on the orange boxes, thinking it would be a dropdown, but I never noticed the names themselves were links. Wow. I like the information the site provides – nice and concise, and cites the source. Thank you for pointing it out.