Alexa, Why Can’t You And The Other Voice Assistants Help Me Vote In 2020?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion piece by David Prince, from voice tech platform developer Witlingo.

Iowa reminded us recently that shiny new tech can fail to deliver on its promise and it’s not just the infamous app. As we head full steam into primary season and the November general election, it also looks like voice-first will come in dead last in helping Americans choose their candidates and cast their votes.

By the end of March, registered democrats (and some other voters) will go to the ballot boxes in 30 US states and 7 US territories, representing more than two-thirds of all the delegates up for grabs by June. For users trying to learn about voting, voting in upcoming primaries, and the candidates who are running, the answers are frequently scraped off the opening paragraph of their Wikipedia entry, and often fail altogether.

Are Voice Assistants Voter-Ready?

Recently, Iowans might have heard some of these before their caucuses:  

Alexa … 

Voter Alexa
Tell me how I can vote in the Iowa Caucuses? “Last winner of Iowa Caucus was Ted Cruz.”
Where can I vote in the Iowa Caucuses? “Polling places + procedures are different in every state. You can find information in your state by following the link I’ve sent in the Alexa app.”

Hey Google …

Voter Google Assistant
Who is running in Iowa Caucuses? Sorry, I don’t understand but I found something else.
Do you want to know what a state caucus is? According to Wikipedia, …” 1 paragraph *
Do you want to know how many delegates are awarded in Iowa? Sorry, I don’t understand but I fAccording to Wikipedia, Iowa sends 56 delegates …” * 1 sentence *

Siri …

Voter Google Assistant
Tell me how I can vote in the Iowa caucuses Iowa Caucus 101
Tell me about the Iowa Caucuses According to Wikipedia, …” 1 paragraph *

While the information is accurate and links might be helpful, none engages the listener in a voice-first experience.  Voters in New Hampshire and Nevada hear more of the same, with the answers only differing in which articles and links they cite.

Are Voice Assistants Helpful with Candidate Information?

Additionally, the original answers to some of the questions beg another question of methodology. For example, Alexa answers questions about candidates with the complete list in an unclear order – not alphabetized, not by poll numbers and not appearing in verbatim in any Google search – and sticks with that order in similar and repeated queries. In the case of New Hampshire, the repeated answer was to say 15 candidates by full name and then merely “18 more.”

On the other hand, Google Assistant answers “Sorry, I don’t understand” to all the questions tested related to learning the candidates on the ballots in upcoming state primaries and caucuses. For its part, Siri again points to useful sites but ends before offering further potential for spoken dialogue or deeper Q&A.

“Alexa, who is running in New Hampshire primary?” “The candidates in the 2020 NH Democratic Primary are Roque De La Fuente III, Rita Krichevsky, Jason Dunlap, Lorenz Kraus, Ben Gleiberman, Robbie Wells, Micahel Ellinger, Thomas Torgesen, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, Mosie Boyd, Kamala Harris, David Fissell and 18 more.”  Interestingly, only one of the top five candidates based on polling is mentioned in this list that includes at least two candidates that have ended their campaigns prior to the primary day.

“Alexa, who is running in the Nevada Caucuses?” “This might answer your question. The candidates in the 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucuses C Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Marianne Williamson, Corey Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, John Delaney, Michael Bennett, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.” This response also includes at least one candidate that has ended their campaign, but correctly lists the front-runners and several other contenders.

“Alexa, who is running in the SC primary?” The candidates in the South Carolina 2020 democratic primary are Andrey Yang, Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Corey Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, John Delaney, Michael Bennett, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden.” This is a reasonably good response.

“OK Google, who is running in the New Hampshire primary?” “My apologies, I don’t understand.”

“Siri, who is running in the New Hampshire primary?” “Here’s what I found.” On-screen, links are displayed for New Hampshire Primary on Wikipedia, 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, 2020 Primary on New Hampshire Public Radio,  Presidential Election on Ballotpedia]

Are Voice Assistants Helpful with Candidate Positions?

Besides voting information, users might feel frustrated when they try to learn more about the candidates, or their positions on important issues and recent news. No candidate has a voice presence triggered by “tell me about X” on Amazon or Google Assistant. Alexa reads the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page if asked to tell about any candidate, apart from Michael Bloomberg, for whom a recent news story is shared. In the lone case of ambiguation, Alexa defaults to the Wikipedia entry for NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett, unless the user asks for the “politician Michael Bennett instead.”

[Jan 28] Alexa, tell me about Michael Bloomberg.” Here’s the latest news from Reuters: “After steadily rising in popularity over the last several weeks, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to have surpassed U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.”  [February 10] Answer, “Hmmm. Right now I don’t see anything trending about Michael Bloomberg.”

On the other hand, when asked “what’s news for Michael Bloomberg,” Alexa was flummoxed-

“Hmmm, I’m not sure what’s new with Michael Bloomberg. Sorry, I’m not up to date about any news on Michael Bloomberg.”

For the other candidates, Alexa fails across the board and Google’s output begs questions on why sources were chosen. In this research, Fox News was cited most frequently, followed by Des Moines Register, NY Times, CNN, NPR, Washington Post, etc. among other popular news providers were left out entirely. Like the order of candidates, unclear selection of news providers could cause users to think the experiences are limited, or guilty of deliberate bias.

“Alexa, tell me news on Bernie Sanders.” “David, here’s what’s new. In weather, ….”

“OK Google, tell me news about Pete Buttigieg.” “Here’s the latest from Fox News: ‘Pete Buttigieg praised Bernie Sanders in prize-winning high school essay.’ I sent 2 other articles to your phone. Do you want to hear the first one?”

“OK Google, who’s running in New Hampshire primaries? Sorry, I don’t have information on that. Do you want to know if New Hampshire is open or closed?” YES. According to Wikipedia, …

In sum, these limited and frustrating experiences lie in contrast with the rich experiences voters find online, where candidates have well-designed websites and SEO/SEM campaigns aimed at capturing voters searching for more information. This is a missed opportunity for voice assistants to provide important dates and locations for voters in 2020. Moreover, they can add context for voters clobbered with breaking news on issues and candidates, acting as hyperlinks for broadcast and streaming media. Finally, voice assistants allow groups of people to engage more interactively than TV, and more socially than websites, and can be a tool for discovery for groups of voters trying to learn more. Virtual assistants should make this a priority in this election year, and the candidates can separate themselves with an improved presence on a modest budget in no time.