Technology for a 21st-Century Democracy

Publication: Governing.com

Author: Susan K. Urahn


04/11/2012 - State governments can improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness when they work together to use the latest technology and apply proven solutions. A good example is the increasing collaboration among states to bring America's election system into the 21st century.

Eight states are establishing a data center that will address major issues identified in the Pew Center on the States' new report, Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient. Among its findings:

  • Approximately 24 million voter registrations in the United States — one of every eight — are no longer valid or have significant inaccuracies.
  • At least 51 million eligible citizens remain unregistered — more than 24 percent of the eligible population.
  • Nearly 2 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
  • Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.
  • About 12 million records have incorrect addresses, meaning that either the voters moved or errors in the information make it unlikely that any mailings can reach them.
These failings are the result of an outdated registration system that relies almost exclusively on centuries-old technologies-paper and mail-to serve a highly mobile 21st-century society. Election offices often are flooded with millions of paper registration applications from outside organizations' voter registration drives right before Election Day, at a time when their resources are stretched the most. Meanwhile, keeping lists accurate is increasingly difficult as Americans change addresses more often. About one in eight Americans moved during each of the 2008 and 2010 election years. Those serving in the military, young people and residents of communities affected by the economic downturn are even more transient.

The data center being established by Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington State (with more states expected to join) will apply proven technologies already in place in the private sector and other areas of government, such as credit-card companies and the IRS. It will match voter registration and motor-vehicle data with other data sources that some states already use, such as national change-of-address data from the Postal Service and death records from the Social Security Administration. Additionally, states are increasingly giving voters more direct control of the information in their voter record by allowing them to submit it securely over the Internet. Nine states currently offer online registration, and as many as a dozen may have it in place before this November's election.

These changes will minimize errors that come from manual data entry and will help states identify inaccuracies and duplication. The reforms also will allow states to identify eligible citizens who are not registered and make sure they have the information they need if they want to participate.

Increased use of data matching and online data entry will save money for the states at a time when budgets are tight. Canada, which already uses modern technology in this way, has 93 percent of its eligible citizens registered at a cost of less than 35 cents per voter to process registrations. By comparison, an in-depth study of one state found that Oregon taxpayers spent $4.11 per active voter in 2008 to process registrations and maintain a voter list.

Election administrators in more than two-thirds of the states also are using the latest technology to distribute official information that voters need to cast a ballot. The Voting Information Project provides an electronic transmission line between official state election sites and the channels voters depend on, including search engines, social media, mobile applications and online news sites. The project offers answers to common questions about the registration and voting process and about the candidates and issues on the ballot. This allows administrators to spend less time fielding last-minute phone calls and more time making sure the voting process goes smoothly.

With help from Pew, Google and Microsoft, companies such as AT&T, Facebook and Foursquare are developing innovative ways to engage voters using this official data, and we already are seeing the impact of those efforts. In the weeks before the 2010 election, for example, Google's polling-place locator was used more than six million times; the online tool was embedded on more than 300 websites of media outlets, campaigns and nonprofits. Voters also used Foursquare to "check in" to polling places and earn an "I voted" badge. This year, voters will have many more tools to help them navigate the election process, including an iPhone application and a gadget to help military and overseas voters fill out their ballots. All of these innovations will help state election administrators cost-effectively reach voters with the most up-to-date information.

Such coordinated efforts by states to use the latest technology to improve the voting process will strengthen American democracy. These initiatives show what states can accomplish when they pool resources and adopt research-based solutions to the challenges that face us in the 21st century.

Susan K. Urahn is managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States, where she leads the Pew Charitable Trusts' efforts to help states identify and implement policies that are fiscally sound and provide a return on investment to taxpayers.

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