A Design Flaw In A D.C. Elections Mailer Is Confusing Lots Of Voters Confusing design and incorrect instructions have left some D.C. voters scratching their heads over how to update their address so they ensure they get a ballot mailed to them for November's election.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo A Design Flaw In A D.C. Elections Mailer Is Confusing Lots Of Voters

A Design Flaw In A D.C. Elections Mailer Is Confusing Lots Of Voters

The mailer from the D.C. Board of Elections mistakenly instructed voters to detach one half and send it back in with updated address information, but has since backtracked on that guidance. Martin Austermuhle/DCist hide caption

toggle caption
Martin Austermuhle/DCist

A mailer from the D.C. Board of Elections was supposed to help registered voters confirm that their address was correct. Instead, it has prompted confusion over how exactly voters can notify the board that their address has changed or that a person listed at their address no longer lives there.

And that could raise additional concerns ahead of the city's plan to mail every registered voter — there are more than 460,000 of them on file — a ballot ahead of November's election.

The mailer started hitting mailboxes across D.C. in recent days, and seemed straightforward enough. People who received it at the address where they live did not need to take further action — that's where the ballot will be sent in the coming weeks. But it was flummoxing for people who need to update their address (if, for instance, they want the ballot forwarded elsewhere, or would be moving in the coming weeks) or want to let the elections board know the mailer was sent to someone who once lived at the address but is no longer there.

Article continues below

The instructions prompt voters to fill out one half of the mailer, detach it from the other half, and send it back to the elections board. But some voters started noticing that in so doing, they'd be sending the board the part of the mailer that has no information identifying who it was sent to to begin with. That's because that information — the recipient's name, address and a unique barcode — is on the half of the mailer that isn't supposed to be sent back in.

"My roommate... moved to California 8 or 9 years ago. Every election year I send back her voter registration card with a note that she no longer lives here. This year, I got the new mailers and when I went to fill in hers to indicate that she doesn't live here, I realized that there is no indication of who it is that no longer lives here on the postcard that goes back to [the elections board]," said Claudia Rauch, a Capitol Hill resident, in an email complaining of the confusing mailer to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen.

Terrible design by [the D.C. Board of Elections] that is going to cause a lot of problems. Do they not test/review these?" tweeted Southwest D.C. resident Stacy Cloyd.

Rachel Coll, a spokeswoman for the elections board, said in an email that problem was a "design flaw" from an outside vendor that produced the mailers. She said the board had already gotten at least 100 of the mailers back from voters with no issues, but the board was forced to tweet out new instructions on Wednesday.

"DO NOT DETACH," said the board, referring to the one half of the mailer it originally told voters to detach and send back in. Instead, the board says voters should instead fill out their information on the card, fold the mailer back in reverse (so the board's return address is on the outside), tape it shut, and drop it in the mail.

This isn't the first time the elections board has had issues with official documents it has mailed to voters. Earlier this year, the board sent new voter registration cards to more than 25,000 voters with the wrong primary date listed on them. In 2018, it failed to notify absentee voters that they had to include postage on their envelopes to send ballots back in. And in a particularly infamous error in 2014, the board sent out hundreds of thousands of official voter guides with an upside-down D.C. flag — commonly known as a sign of distress — on the cover.

And while some of those mistakes can seem minor, many experts say how election materials are designed can make a big difference in whether voters understand what they need to do. That same principle motivated an initiative within the D.C. government in 2018 to make government forms, applications, and documents more user-friendly.

For At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, the confusing mailers mean bigger changes are needed at the elections office, which is independently overseen by a three-person board. "We need to conduct General Election [with a] board we have and do everything we can to make that election happen successfully. I will still continue to call for new leadership afterward. It is old to keep blaming contractors," she tweeted.

But for the time being, Allen says voters will still have a chance to correct their addresses ahead of the election. "[The Board of Elections] is planning on subsequent mailers where there will other ways to indicate someone has moved," he tweeted.

The elections board also says that voters can check their registration details online. Election officials say that ballots should start arriving in mailboxes by early October. And for those voters who don't get a ballot or want to vote in person, the city will be opening 17 early voting sites for a week before the election and 80 polling places citywide for Election Day, including Capital One Arena.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5