A new app is making voting easier for thousands of Australians with speech impediments. Through Voters Voice, users can tell election officials their name, where they live and their voting record using a touchscreen keyboard. The app communicates instructions in both Auslan (Australian sign language) and simplified English. It is expected to save the Victoria government nearly $800,000 (USD) during the 2018 election in costs associated with hiring interpreters and training election officials.
Results & Impact
At the 2016 Victoria council elections, Voters Voice was downloaded more than 1,600 times, despite only half of the state's 78 councils holding elections. This exceeded Victoria authorities' expectations as they had only anticipated about 500 downloads.
Victoria Electoral Commission, Conduct, disability organisations
The Victorian Electoral Commission partnered with disability organisations to design and test an app that could help people with severe communication impediments vote. Conduct, a Melbourne-based software development firm, was hired to build the app. Development took place over a six-month period. Launched on iTunes, the app is designed to run on iPads and is free to download. Once users have downloaded Voters Voice, they are asked to type in their name and address. This data is logged and can be displayed or spoken through an automated voice at the push of a button. The app also allows users to choose pre-programmed phrases to communicate with election officials if they have difficulties. At the heart of the app is its communication dashboard. A touchscreen keyboard allows users to type out questions or comments, which can be either displayed or spoken through the iPad. The app contains tutorial videos in Auslan (Australian sign language) and simplified English to instruct users how to enroll, vote and use the app. Notifications can also be sent out to users to notify them of key election dates and solicit feedback.
Cost & Value
Voters Voice cost around $95,000 (USD) to develop and is free for users to download. It is estimated the app will deliver cost savings of nearly $800,000 at the Victoria state elections in 2018.
Running since 2016
Prior to development, getting a clear idea of the number of people who would use the app was difficult. Victoria officials used data on the number of citizens who had suffered strokes or were being supported by disability agencies, but the figure they came to - 280,000 to 300,000 - is a rough estimate.
The Victorian Electoral Commission has launched an app that could save the state almost $800,000 USD by helping thousands of citizens with communication difficulties vote.
The app, Voters Voice, guides users through the electoral process and provides a bank of useful phrases for them to communicate with electoral officials. Voters can also use a touchscreen keyboard to ask or respond to questions. The app also provides them with tutorial videos in Auslan (Australian sign language) and simplified English explaining how to enroll, vote and use the app.
Launched in August 2016, the system was designed to assist the 280,000–300,000 people thought to have severe communication difficulties in Victoria. Additionally, census results show that 44% of Australians are unable to read at the nationally accepted minimum level, and may also have difficulty voting.
“We identified that there was potentially a segment of voters who were either avoiding going to a voting centre or avoiding voting at all due to the fact that they had difficulty communicating with election staff,” said Sue Lang, Director of Communication and Engagement for the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC). “It may embarrassing or uncomfortable for them to be in a voting centre if they don’t have any speech.”
When voting in Australia, individuals are required to answer three questions in order to access their ballot: their name, their address and whether or not they have voted previously. Although voters with communication difficulties were provided with laminated cards containing key phrases that they could point to, the process could still be embarrassing and intimidating. It also required training the approximately 20,000 election assistants stationed in Victoria in assisting individuals who needed that level of support, a costly and time-consuming process.
It is estimated that the app could save Victoria nearly $800,000 at the 2018 state elections because the government would not have to hire Auslan interpreters or train volunteers to use the card assistance system.
“We needed to find a way to help people understand the process and remove that inherent difficulty in communicating when they’re in a voting centre,” said Lang.
To accomplish this, the VEC engaged local disability organisations to identify what users would need from a voting support application. After hiring a developer, Conduct, to build the product, VEC drew on these connections to test and refine a prototype of the app. The entire development process lasted six months and the app was launched in August 2016 for about $95,000.
Once users have downloaded and installed the app, which is free of charge, they are required to enter their name and address using the touchscreen keyboard. When asked for their name and address on polling day, they press a single button on the app and their name and address appear automatically. When asked whether they have voted before users can also respond yes, no or ‘I don’t know’ by clicking on the relevant dashboard icon. Should they encounter any difficulties filling out their ballot, users can select pre-programmed phrases including ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can you write it down?’ and ‘Ask me yes/no questions.’ If these prove insufficient, the keyboard allows users to type their own questions or responses, which can also either be displayed on the screen or communicated through an automated voice.
“It’s not just people who might have the language difficulty who benefit,” said Lang. “It’s also often the person who is trying to deal with them and feels a little bit silly or awkward because they don’t understand what the person is saying. So this takes all that angst and anxiety for both parties out of the equation.”
The app also helps users prepare for and understand the voting process through tutorial videos. Recorded in both Auslan and simplified English, they guide voters through the election process by explaining how to enroll, vote and use the Voters Voice app.
A content management system built into the app allows the VEC to update content, communicate with users and request feedback. Notifications are sent to people who have downloaded the app notifying them of key stages in the election, including early voting and polling day. This includes providing users with contact information so they can request the location of their nearest polling station. Following the election, they are invited to fill out a survey detailing their experience of using Voters Voice via a notification delivered to them through the app.
The app proved successful when trialled at the local elections in 2016, with downloads far exceeding expectations.
“Only half of the 78 councils in Victoria were having elections… so we thought, let’s set a target of 500 downloads for people within those areas and see how we go,” said Lang. “The number of downloads that we had, in the end, was 1,615 – which quite surprised us.”
Making voters feel at ease about participating is particularly significant given the compulsory nature of voting in Australia. In Victoria, registered voters face a fine of $60 if they fail to cast their ballot or provide an adequate excuse for not doing so. The fine can be increased to about $80 if it is not paid on time. Given this penalty, people suffering from speech or intellectual impediments are often discouraged from registering by their family and carers due to fears they will be subject to a fine.
However, if voters enroll as part of Victoria’s disability outreach programs and fail to cast their ballot, they are not subject to a fine. Wih the app, the hope is that people suffering from severe communication impediments will feel able to participate in the electoral process.
Voters Voice’s utility as a communication tool could also benefit users in areas beyond the voting process.
“They can use that communication board for any other purpose in their day-to-day lives,” said Lang. “For instance, if they jump into a taxi, they can just press ‘I live at such and such’ and get the taxi or Uber driver to drive them home.”
Voters Voice was recognised as being one of the best examples of government innovation when it won best Digital App Design at the 2017 Good Design Awards.
Although it is currently only available on iPads, VEC hopes the next version of Voters Voice will be operable on smartphones.
(Picture credit: Wikipedia Commons)