How much time did you spend educating voters that your candidate was on the ballot in the last local race you worked? How many resources did you dedicate to helping voters find their polling place? At registration drives, how many voters told you they didn’t know whether they were registered or not? And how infuriating was walking voters through a circa-1990 state election board website to find basic election information?
The answer to most or all of those questions is probably “a lot.” But help could be on the way.
Providing that sort of information is the mission of the Voting Information Project, a joint venture from Google and the Pew Center on the States. The project is giving state election boards the tools they need to make hard to find information readily available—and searchable—through the use of technologies like Google Maps.
“It’s a way of shortening the distance between the official information that lives in the back end of state election websites and the voters who are looking for it,” says Doug Chapin of Pew.
Here’s how it works: State election boards provide polling place, ballot and registration information to Google and Pew who then, free of charge, create a widget that can be embedded into any website’s code. A user can then simply plug his or her address into the widget to find ballot information and the location of his or her polling place displayed on a Google Map.
While it may sound somewhat straightforward, the effect of this—if it catches on—would be significant. It would unify election information in every precinct of every state, says Chris Arterton a new media expert at George Washington University. “What they intend to do is ambitious,” he says. “Rather than just passively be a conduit to facilitate the voter process, they intend to play an active role by trying to standardize some of the procedures across jurisdictions.”
So far, those who have seen the project give it high marks. “The key players —Pew and Google—are providing the fundamental background stuff we need to make democracy works better,” says David Karpf, a Brown University professor who specializes in new media. “They are the ones who are well situated to provide that. What we want from the Googles and the Pews of the world is easier access to information.”
The project’s poster child is Virginia’s 2009 statewide elections in which Nancy Rodrigues, the Virginia state Board of Election Secretary, fully embraced it. “We were the leader of the pack,” she says. “And I thought it was fabulous.”
The Virginia election showed two tangible benefits of the project. First, it relieves the strain on cash-strapped state election boards. Rodrigues said her office fielded significantly fewer calls requesting polling place and voter registration information as a result of this technology. “In these stark economic times,” she says, “it allowed up to provide an upgraded service with no additional expense to the taxpayer.” In Virginia in 2009, the widgets were embedded into several websites and were used millions of times.
Second, it aided campaigns and other groups involved in the election. The widget the project produces is embeddable in any website, including a campaign’s, news outlet’s or interest group’s. Colin Delany of e.politics.com notes that this widget saves campaigns time and resources. “It’s something that campaigns have been having to do themselves,” he says. “In 2008, for example, shortly before the election the Obama campaigns rolled out a polling place finder application.”
“If there is a neutral third party doing it,” Delany adds, “it’ll take some pressure off campaigns. “
The project was launched in 2007 and has been used in 10 states and Los Angeles County, with mixed results. Chapin says their goal is to double the presence in 2010 and continue spreading in 2012.
Even though the Voting Information Project is offering these services free of charge, the project has found it difficult to convince election boards to partner with them. Chapin says tight budgets are one reason for the hesitance. “Election offices are very much under the gun fiscally,” he says. “So, any change is scary. If you are not familiar with this kind of technology it sounds hard or expensive.”
The project is nevertheless moving forward with new tools. An absentee ballot registration widget is in the works, and Chapin believes this is just the beginning. “In many ways,” he says, “we are just trying to get them to dip their toe into it. Once people are used to seeing the coding for this format, the sky is the limit to do a mobile app or use it for communicating data between levels of government.”
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics magazine.