Vote Your Mind

by Gordy Slack

Thousands of US veterans have suffered traumatic brain injuries from roadside bombs and mortar explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of these injuries are bloody—the results of shrapnel or bullets penetrating the skull—while others are invisible to the casual observer, the products of shockwaves that move through the air after an explosion and cause a concussion. Both kinds of traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be disruptive and even disabling. Even when a primary injury to the head appears to have healed, vets commonly sustain short- or long-term problems with organization, attention, and memory.

Preparing to vote can be a daunting task even for the most organized and attentive of citizens. But for men and women with mild cognitive impairment, such as veterans with TBI, the task can be frustrating, leading voters to quit before completing the whole ballot or avoiding the process altogether. A new tool being developed by CITRIS’s Data and Democracy Initiative (DDI), Vote Your Mind, aims to make voter guides, and hence the ballot box itself, more accessible to individuals with attention and memory disabilities.

Several smartphone-based tools are designed to aid vets with TBI; some help them remember to take medications or keep appointments, others help with communication, and still, others focus on rehabilitation, encouraging the brain’s own plastic properties to stretch in order to recover lost functions. But the tablet-based Vote Your Mind will be the first devoted specifically to make it easier for veterans—or anyone with cognitive impairments—to maintain their full civic participation by voting, says Dan Gillette, the app’s co-developer and a Visiting Researcher at DDI.

Supported by a grant from The Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF), Vote Your Mind will make voter guides more accessible and useful to people suffering from attention and memory problems so common after a traumatic brain injury. The program breaks the often arcane and densely organized voter guide material into smaller, more easily grasped, and considered parts. It also allows users to interact with the material in ways that help sustain attention, retain memory, and make decisions that reflect a user’s opinions and values.

“We use a lot of feedback control loops,” says Greg Niemeyer, the project’s principle investigator and co-founder of DDI. “Propositions are often complex, as are candidates’ reasons for running for office. We do not want to oversimplify them. But there should be extra effort put into structuring them so that they become as intelligible as possible. We’re not changing the content. We’re just giving it a lot more and better structure.”

Niemeyer recounts finding two bound and printed documents in the mail one day—a Banana Republic catalog and a voter guide. The clothing catalog was “really compelling, transparent, and almost irresistible,” he says. “The whole thing is connected to contemporary media reality. I wanted to open it, to peruse it, and then, maybe too often, to buy something from it.” The Voter Guide on the other hand is soporific; colorless, dull, with huge impenetrable-looking blocks of text. “The typesetting seems to follow arcane rules that have not been reconsidered at all in light of developments in media.”

“The idea of Vote Your Mind is to keep people engaged by making the experience more interesting and accessible,” says Faraz Farzin, a developmental psychologist consulting on the project. “If it is more engaging, users are likely to spend more time on task, which usually leads to greater comprehension and a greater understanding of the information.”

As users of Vote Your Mind read individual paragraphs, they are prompted to mark each one with one of three marks: a check, an exclamation mark, or a question mark. The exact meaning of these symbols is left to the user, but simply interacting with the text helps users to remember what they have read and makes it easier to review, says Farzin, a long-time collaborator with Niemeyer. Farzin earned her Ph.D. at UC Davis where she worked at the CITRIS Social Apps Lab and the Center for Mind and Brain. She is currently a research scientist at Lumosity.

In a systematic, evenly applied way, the software will break down and simplify the way content in the voter guide is presented, says Farzin. This includes “chunking,” or breaking down headings and body text, “making it come online in a more goal- and user-directed sequence so users can read and advance to the next subject at their own speed. Pacing is critical to keeping users engaged and not frustrated,” she says.

Vote Your Mind also lets users annotate voter guide text by selecting icons that represent their opinions. At the end of each section, this information is visualized to assist voters in making up their minds or confirming their decision about a candidate or issue.

The application also compiles a sample ballot, recording choices as users move through it making decisions about candidates, propositions, and measures. The sample ballot can be printed at the end of the process and be brought into the voting booth.

For users with vision problems or difficulty reading, the device will also use auditory information and text-to-speech translation, says Farzin.

For the project to succeed, it must appear—and indeed be—politically neutral. That is a tricky challenge, Gillette says, when even an aesthetic preference might imply political associations. “We are supporting the current electoral system,” says Gillette, “not advocating for a different system or advancing any kind of political agenda. We are just trying to make voting your mind easier.”

Traditionally when it comes to voting, content reigns supreme; any design is suspect. The state-sponsored voter guide itself is not supposed to be rhetorical. Rather, it should be a neutral crucible in which charged political rhetoric can be safely contained.

But voter guides could be designed in a way that makes pro and con arguments for a measure equally transparent, Niemeyer says, and that inspires people to vote.  We want the voter guide to remind people that as voters they are very powerful. As they are now designed, the guides make a lot of people feel powerless, he says.

The four-member Vote Your Mind research team, which includes DDI Director Camille Crittenden, will soon conduct a pilot study of the tablet application with the help of a group of Berkeley students, who are also vets who suffer from mild cognitive impairment.

“Voting is an important symbolic step back into society for many injured veterans,” says Gillette. “If I can vote, it says a lot about my validity and the validity of the group I belong to. That has been true with race, disability, and citizenship. And it’s true for injured vets.”

“These veterans have invested a lot in this democracy already,” says Niemeyer. “When they served they had the highest possible stakes in the democratic system. We want to facilitate their continued engagement at home.”