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What design can't fix

Butterfly_postersletter_page_1 The recent narrow victory of Felipe Calderon in the Mexican presidential elections remind me of the American 2000 Presidential elections. Although I've heard no cries of poor ballot design in the Mexico election, it does remind me of the aspects of the election experience that design cannot fix, at least not directly: the current spate of narrow margins in election results.

Is it due to more centralist tendencies in political parties, where the distinctions between candidate positions are sometimes extremly narrow?

That may often seem to the case pre-Election 2000 in the US, when people used to say that there is no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Yet in spite of the current controversy on Senator Lieberman and Hillary Clinton's pro-war positioning, no one claims that the Republican and Democratic parties are the same. And this was clearly not the case in the Mexican election, in which the positions of Calderon (pro-business and close to US) and Obrador (leftist and closer to Latin America) were not similar at all but represented quite different platforms.

Thus at least for Mexico, the issue seems to be the ideological and political desires of the voting public and perhaps the inablity of political officials to create a platform that "speaks" to people's interests, which admittingly can be quite contradictory themselves.

I am reading an article by Adam Berinsky of MIT that says that electoral reforms that have been done to lower the barriers to participation in voting (vote-by-mail, voter registration, relaxing absentee ballot reqs, and internet voting) have not addressed the actual barriers to political participation, especially for those of lower socio-economic classes, which are political information and interests.

His idea hinges on the need to study the "cost of political engagement" and an understanding of the mechanisms by which interest in politics is created. In the DforD Election experience model, we came up with a typology of voter types:

  • Avid voters, who vote all the time and are the ones who are most engaged in the entire election process
  • Civic voters, who vote as a civic duty and are engaged in the idea of voting, but may not be engaged in specific issues or candidates
  • Issue voters, who are engaged with specific issues (education, the environment, abortion, gay-marriage) and will come out to vote when those issues are on the platform
  • Excluded voters, people who could be or may want to be engaged in the election process but are disenfranchised for structual reasons. This is the group that most electoral reforms who to address.
  • Apathetic voters, those who are completely disengaged from the election process.

This model of voter types could be a first step in analyzing the dynamics of political engagement and its costs, on a cross-cultural basis if possible. If we understand the dynamics of the Issue and Apathtic voters we could have a picture of political engagement and perhaps develop actionable communication and experiential design solutions to address them.

So I recant, there are things that Design (uppercase D when combined with strong ethnographic research) can fix if we shift the discussion from participation to engagement.

Download Berinsky article.pdf


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