Testimony of Doug Chapin Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Elections on October 21, 2009

Source Organization: Pew Center on the States

Speaker: Doug Chapin

Venue: United States House of Representatives Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Elections


10/21/2009 - Chairwoman Lofgren and members of the subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

My name is Doug Chapin, and I am the Director of Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, a division of the Pew Charitable Trusts that conducts research, brings together a wide variety of partners, and analyzes states’ experiences to identify what works and what does not to advance nonpartisan, pragmatic state policy solutions to the most pressing problems affecting Americans.

All of us at Pew applaud you for your leadership in calling this hearing and drawing attention to the emerging use and promise of technology to improve the accuracy, cost-effectiveness and efficiency of our election system.

Americans increasingly rely upon the Internet for many different kinds of information. They are going online to pay taxes and parking tickets, to update their personal information with public as well as private agencies, and to request services or otherwise interact with all levels of government. Indeed, according to our colleagues at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, four in five Americans have visited government Web sites to seek information or assistance.

This exploding demand for fast and convenient access to information means that public-sector information sources cannot ignore opportunities to reach out to their customers, clients and citizens online. Pew is committed to helping state and local election officials find ways to make better use of the Internet – and new mobile broadband devices – to serve the needs of registered voters and eligible citizens alike.

Consider this: when the National Voter Registration Act (“motor voter”) was adopted in 1993 – more than sixteen years ago – hardly anyone had an e-mail address. When the Help America Vote Act was enacted in 2002 – almost seven years ago to the day -- the concept of statewide voter registration databases was thought to be a cutting-edge idea. Since then, new technological developments like text messaging, social networking and cloud computing have remade and reshaped the world we live in. At Pew, we believe it is not only desirable but necessary for state and local election offices to make use of the latest proven technology in order to keep pace.

It simply makes no sense that for the vast majority of Americans, registering to vote relies on a system dependent on filling out and submitting a paper application. Nor does it make sense to ask the women and men who administer our elections to spend so much time and money managing a paper-based system that invites error and does not efficiently serve the needs of any of the participants in the process – not the election officials, and certainly not the voters.

But the field is catching up, and the election officials on this panel today deserve all the credit for adapting and applying proven practices in public technology to elections.

At Pew, we study the experience of trailblazers like those on the panel today and use their experience and insight to commission research, pilot projects and propose solutions to assist other states in following their example. Our goal is nothing short of a modernized voter registration system that not only maximizes accuracy, cost-effectiveness and efficiency but works for voters and election officials alike.

To that end, we are supporting a study of online voter registration in Washington State and Arizona that will allow election officials in other states to gain insight from their experiences and adapt lessons learned to the needs of their own state. We have also funded studies of preregistration of young voters, of the effectiveness of different ways of reaching voters, and of the quality of voter registration databases.

Pew is also actively engaged in the effort to explore potential solutions. Under the experienced guidance of my newest colleague, former Oregon State Election Director John Lindback, Pew is convening a working group of election officials and technology experts who are looking closely at systems across the nation to examine what works and what doesn’t, and what components would best be included in a welldesigned and modernized voter registration system. We expect to begin releasing the end product of all of this work in the next few months.

In addition, I am pleased to represent Pew as a member of the Committee to Modernize Voter Registration, a bipartisan effort to draw attention to the inefficiencies of our current system and stimulate a dialogue about using technology to make the process more integrated and efficient. The Committee shares Pew’s view that harnessing technology to improve how we run elections is a critical goal – and modernizing the nation’s voter registration system is central to that vision. Of course, Pew’s commitment to using technology to improve elections is not limited to the area of voter registration modernization.

I have testified before this subcommittee previously about the difficulties facing military and overseas voters. I know that members and staff on both sides of the aisle have worked hard to identify ways that we can remove barriers for military and overseas voters, and much of your work is embodied in the pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

For military and overseas voters, absentee voting can seem like an insurmountable barrier. Pew’s January 2009 report No Time to Vote found that fully half the states do not allow overseas military voters enough time to receive and return a ballot. The military and overseas voting provisions in the NDAA seek to harness technological advancements to expedite delivery of ballots to these voters, including using email to get a blank ballot into voters’ hands. But improvements in ballot processing are of no help if the voter is unable to register to vote in the first place or if outdated records direct their ballot or other materials to the wrong address. The Department of Defense has the technology to locate a servicemember at any given time, and we should find ways to utilize this information to ensure that election officials have the correct and up-to-date mailing addresses for military voters. This ability to keep up with highly mobile voters is vital; military and overseas voters are almost twice as likely as domestic voters to experience registration problems. Almost as important, the lessons we learn can help us confront and overcome the challenges facing all voters If we can utilize technology to solve some of the major problems military and overseas voters encounter, we will be well-positioned to solve many of the same problems all voters face.

Another key aspect of the voting process is answering voters’ questions about whether they are registered, where they vote and what’s on the ballot. This is no small matter; in 2008, approximately 120 million people went online to answer their questions about the general election. Too often, however, that information is either outdated, hard to find or provided by a third party. That’s why Pew and Google – in cooperation with state and local election officials - launched the Voting Information Project (VIP), a partnership to use official voting information to answer voters’ questions. VIP enables election offices to produce a public feed of data on polling places, voting requirements and ballot content that can then be harnessed by election officials, campaigns, the media – or anyone else who wishes to help voters navigate the voting process on Election Day.

In the 2008 election cycle, ten states and Los Angeles County -- the nation’s largest -- provided VIP feeds that were integrated with Google Maps and a number of other applications to help voters find their polling places. Approximately 10 percent of people who voted on Election Day in 2008 used Google’s VIP-powered tool to find their polling place. In November 2009, thanks to the efforts of the Virginia State Board of Elections, Old Dominion voters will not only be able to find their polling place online but will also instantly have access to a full list of candidates on their ballot in the 2009 statewide general election.

Creating the standard feed is only the first step. Harnessing the creativity we’ve seen exhibited in the private sector will lead to innovations that provide voters a level and quality of service that seems out of reach today.

Because VIP follows an open format, it can harness the programming talents of today’s cutting-edge technologists to meet the needs of voters everywhere. For example:

  • North Carolina’s State Board of Elections is currently testing a system that will allow voters to use the email and text capabilities of their mobile phones to get information about their voter registration, to track the status of their absentee ballot or to verify whether or not their provisional ballot was counted;
  • In 2008, Google and CREDO, a mobile technology company, each made a version of the VIP poll locator available for mobile phones, with other developers planning to expand those offerings to include candidate information in 2009 and beyond;
  • Using VIP to link election information to more familiar online tools can also open up a host of creative solutions for a wide variety of voters. For example, voters could identify public transportation options near polling places, disabled voters could get complete information on accessibility options at their precinct and voters could access sites that give them an idea of how long they can expect to wait to vote on Election Day; and
  • Other developers are also finding new ways to put election information at voters’ fingertips – or, using mobile technology, literally in voters’ hands.
At Pew, we are planning to use VIP as a backbone for a better voting process for military and overseas voters. Specifically, we are working to develop technology to generate customized ballot listings for voters abroad that they can use to help them complete their absentee ballots – or to generate a replacement Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot should their official ballot not arrive.

These exciting advances in technology mean that improvements to our nation’s elections are limited only by our imaginations – and Pew is committed to providing the tools and know-how to make those limits disappear.

In conclusion, I thank you once again for the opportunity to appear. On behalf of all of us at Pew, I applaud you for considering – and stand ready to assist you in accomplishing – the goal of harnessing the latest technology to bring our nation’s election system into the 21st Century.

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