I recently came across a click-baity blog post about how poor UX is the root of poor democracy.

OK, yet another wide-eyed designer opines how design can solve the world’s problems. And yet another article that does our profession a disservice with the shallowness many use to deride design thinking. Specifically these points:

  • promotes UI over UX
  • devoid of system thinking
  • anti-design thinking in that it solves for the symptoms without identifying the root problem

Of course the Venn diagram of these three concepts is roughly a circle, but let me go on.

Taking the product life-cycle metaphor of democracy further, our country hasn’t done any real refactoring of our model of governance since the beginning. What many forget or hadn’t learned in civics class (is that even a thing now?) is that the founding fathers modeled our system after the Roman republic model of governance as opposed to the Greek democratic system (spoiler alert, neither ended well). Think the Electoral College. They wanted only ‘enlightened’ Citizens to elect our legislators, not everyone. Which at that time meant ‘rich’ (property owners).  We have patched the process along the way — giving the vote to women, freed slaves, the poor, and the uneducated; as well as direct election of Senators. There are still a lot of people who prefer a limited electorate.  

Still the user interface for our republic’s representation is the electoral process (don’t forget, as many do, giving feedback after the election). The aforementioned post wanted to solve the problem of voter turnout by removing a number of barriers, which may or may not work (e.g. if election day is a holiday, I’m skipping town).

But say we get to 100% turnout, does that fix democracy? Maybe? Probably not.

The way we (mostly) create representation districts in the US is a political, partisan process.  The majority party in state legislature approves new maps drawn after every census (which is why politics is invading the census.) With the advent of big data, complex software and machine-learning algorithms, we now have a system that turns the republic model on its head: legislators get to pick their electors.

Texas District 35, named after the Interstate it represents

Texas US District 35 is the poster child for gerrymandering, formed to ‘crack’ Austin and San Antonio minority voters into multiple districts. So the poor rep has to jog back and forth to meet his constituents, and having lived in both SA and Austin I know the constituents have little in common, except both claim to have invented the breakfast taco. (spoiler alert: It was San Antonio).

I know there is more to it, but to me a representative district looks more like a square than a salamander. I did get to participate in a elementary rezoning process for our local school district. We came up with some key principles, like keeping neighborhoods intact (neighborhood codes seem to be the most atomic grouping to build from) and children should be able to walk to school. Comparatively, US District 35 doesn’t contain one intact school district, but cuts across 18.

TLDR (too late now), there’s more to fixing democracy than voter turnout. Low turnout is a result of citizenry that doesn’t feel represented by its government, so you have to address that. Related to that is our political system of endless electioneering that promotes policy for some Citizens over others.

Design Thinking for Democracy

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