Governing Magazine: Collaboration, Technology and the Lessons of Election Day

About

When Hurricane Sandy devastated communities in New Jersey and New York a week before Election Day, polling places were not spared—many were flooded, leveled or without electric power. For New Jersey Elections Director Robert Giles, one particularly eloquent caller to the state elections office captured the concern thousands of citizens felt. "They said, 'I lost my house—please don't let me lose my vote.' That really hit home with us," Giles recalls. 

State and local election officials scrambled to set up alternate polling sites. But how would voters know where to find these new locations?

The answer for many voters was to turn to Web-based tools and applications made possible by the Voting Information Project (VIP). The crucial role VIP played in states hit by Sandy is a dramatic example of how collaboration between election administrators and the technology sector expanded in the 2012 cycle, helping states respond quickly and accurately to voters' questions.

Initially developed by the Pew Center on the States and Google, VIP provides an electronic transmission line between official state- and local-government election sites and the information channels that many Americans count on, including popular search engines, social media, mobile applications, online news sources, and candidate or party websites. Through VIP, voters get on-demand access to accurate information about where to vote, what is on the ballot and whether they will need identification at the polls. Partnerships with 39 states, the District of Columbia and businesses including Microsoft, Facebook and AT&T have helped tens of millions of Americans look up these answers quickly and easily.

Because New Jersey and New York partnered with VIP, residents were able to receive late-breaking official updates about polling locations from sources close at hand. Nearly 200,000 voters across the two states tracked down polling information through text messages provided by VIP partner Mobile Commons. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie and the secretary of state's office recommended the text-messaging service to voters without power or Internet access. And when the New York City Board of Elections voting website was not returning accurate polling-place information, local officials replaced it with the VIP-based Google Voter Information Tool until their site was working properly again.

States' success with VIP extended to all parts of the country. On Election Day, about 25 million voters used lookup tools powered by VIP. Websites featuring these tools included the Washington Post, CNN, ABC, FOX News, both the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees, Voto Latino, Nonprofit VOTE, Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters. Microsoft's Polling Place Locator was embedded on Facebook and served up results for more than 3 million searches. Google reported that more than 600 sites embedded its tool.

In another example of teamwork and technology, a number of states worked together to upgrade the accuracy and security of their voter rolls and streamline the registration process for citizens. These joint efforts are designed to address the fact that, in the 2008 election cycle, approximately 24 million voter registrations in the United States--one of every eight--were no longer valid or had significant inaccuracies and that at least 51 million eligible citizens remained unregistered.

Seven states--Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, and Washington--partnered with Pew to launch the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). ERIC securely compares voter records between states, matching them with data from motor-vehicle agencies and other sources such as the Postal Service's national change-of-address registry and Social Security's death records. Election officials used these resources not only to maintain more-accurate voter rolls but to identify and contact residents who appeared eligible to vote but were not registered. Innovations like ERIC and online voter registration--now available in 13 states--make it easier for millions of eligible citizens to participate in our democracy while saving taxpayer dollars.

When we take a look back at Election Day 2012, one thing is very clear: Collaboration among state and local officials, citizens, and private-sector partners based on rigorous research, data-driven solutions and innovative technology can contribute to significant improvements in the voting experience, election-administration efficiency and cost savings that will benefit all Americans in the years to come.