Imagine you’re a voter in California this year, looking over dozens of candidates in nearly as many election races. Some names will be unfamiliar to you—perhaps some of the offices, too. Even a very informed voter may be uncertain about the difference in duties between a judge on a court of appeal and a judge on a superior court, for instance. Similarly, the usual clues are often missing in local, non-partisan races like city clerk. Even in races that are nominally non-partisan but more ideological, like mayor, general elections may still be between multiple progressives or multiple conservatives. It’s easy to imagine voters turning to Google or a voting guide to try to inform themselves about the candidates, yet we know little about what they actually search for. What might people “Google” about these local candidates? Do more informed voters look for different sorts of information? How do they react to disappointing or encouraging answers?
Little research addresses these questions, so we began mapping out answers by conducting multiple online survey experiments in 2016. In each experiment, we varied the offices hypothetical candidates were running for and asked respondents to type in—using open-ended text boxes like they would in a search engine—what they wanted to know about the candidates.
We found some things that seemed like good news for democracy: respondents asked for a lot of information about the political backgrounds and policy platforms of the candidates. Voters were also efficient in their searches: they looked for “deal-breaker” items first, rapidly discarding candidates about whom they found discouraging information but only slowly warming to candidates about whom they learned encouraging information. But we found that as voters became more informed, they were more likely to ask for specific, verifiable, and relevant information about candidates. For instance, a well-informed voter might ask for information about a judge’s decision record on sexual assault cases, or the mayor’s plan for local development. Less informed voters were more likely to ask for personalistic information about the candidates: where they were from, what their personality was like, what religion they were. In short, more informed voters looked for good representatives, while less informed voters looked for good people. This raises the possibility that candidates who “look” like a good person (on paper or on a smartphone) might be favored over more qualified or programmatic candidates.
While we hope that these findings generate interest and concern among voters and scholars, we also hope they will spark interest from companies like Google, Bing, and Facebook. In many cases, we expect voters will turn to online search engines to learn more about the candidates. By partnering with non-partisan and non-profit companies like Ballotpedia or BallotReady, these companies could quickly supply voters the information they need: programmatic information about candidates and the responsibilities of the offices in question. In a system where voters must regularly learn about dozens of new candidates while sorting through fake news and an overwhelming amount of online material, a small change like this could mean a big step forward for informed voting.