Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Did usability issues change the course of a referendum?

Voters in the Irish Republic went to the polls on October 4th to vote on a referendum on the status of the upper house of the Irish parliament. The government proposed referendum to the Irish constitution called for the end of the Senate, known in Irish as the Seanad. Those opposing wanted to keep the institution.

The result was a close one with those wanting to keep the Seanad in existence winning by a margin of just 42,500 votes from a total poll of less than 1.3 million.

However, there was confusion in the minds of some voters in how to express their intention and this was not helped by the ballot paper layout and wording.

I was in Ireland on polling day. I heard and read several anecdotal accounts in the media of voter confusion, enough to suggest something was not quite right. 

The referendum was perceived in simplest terms as a question about whether voters wanted to keep the Seanad. So it seems that there were a minority of voters who expressed that they did not want to keep this institution by voting NO – NO to the Seanad. This is essentially what the vote was about. However, the referendum was proposed as an abolition of the institution, essentially a negative act, taking something away.  To agree with this, voters had to vote YES. While the majority of voters understood this and voted in a manner that correctly expressed their preference,
there were some who didn’t, particularly on the side of those who did not want the Seanad to continue. 

The referendum commission produced an excellent
independent information hand-out (pdf) before the vote. However, many voters would not have read it, particularly as it seemed to bear little immediate relevance to their day-to-day struggle during a time of austerity.

None of this was helped by there being two referenda on the same day, with voters supplied with two very similar ballot papers which referenced the numerical amendments to the constitution without displaying the concept in plain English or plain Irish Gaelic.

These issues of usability probably inflated the eventual NO vote. Were there 21, 251 confused would-be YES voters who voted the wrong way, enough to overturn the result?  That is impossible to say, although nearly all opinion polls before the vote gave the YES camp a substantial lead.

What is clear is the necessity to think about core concepts and how best to address your target audience to get optimal understanding. This applies across referenda, problem solving and day-to-day business processes. Keep it simple.