Matt Morse, Senior Associate, Election Initiatives
November 3, 2011— In today’s information-driven, highly mobile society, people expect the information they need to be available immediately and through multiple online platforms. Pew’s Election Initiatives has spent three years developing the Voting Information Project, which leverages technology to increase voter access to critical election information and improve the efficiency of state election administration. The project works with election offices, Google, Microsoft, AT&T, Facebook, civic groups, and numerous outlets around the country to deliver important answers to voters’ most commonly asked questions.
Matthew Morse, senior associate with Election Initiatives, discusses the project, its current applications, and its potential to bring election information to more voters more quickly.
Q: What is the Voting Information Project and how does it work?
A: The Voting Information Project, or VIP, is a partnership between Pew, election offices, technology companies, and civic groups. VIP is currently working in 34 states, helping voters find the information they need in order to vote. The way it works is that Google and Microsoft make information from state election offices available to developers and other software companies who then create tools for anyone’s use on websites and smartphone applications. In 2010, more than 300 online news outlets, search engines, campaigns and organizations embedded VIP tools. And individuals used the tools more than six million times to look up information about their polling place.
Q: What was the impetus for launching this project?
A: VIP was created to solve a problem that Pew research identified in 2008 in our report, “Being Online is Not Enough.” We found that voters looking for information online on Election Day couldn’t find answers to basic questions, such as, ‘Where’s my polling place?’ ‘Who’s going to be on my ballot?’ and ‘How do we navigate the voting process?’ Plus, people weren’t finding the answers where they were looking for them—search engines, newspaper websites, via their smartphones and tablets, and other technology.
The report also found that when voters can’t find the information they need online, they call their election office or go there in person. This creates more work for officials who are trying to focus on running elections, and costs a lot of money, anywhere from $10 to $100 per interaction. So, given that conducting elections is a core government service, we should do it the best way we can to serve voters and taxpayers. VIP is intended to help do that.
Q: How is this different and better from what state election administrators have done in the past?
A: We all go online to buy movie tickets, pay our bills, and stay connected with friends, but it’s difficult to get answers to basic questions about voting. While state election websites offer answers to some of our questions, voters often aren’t looking there. They’re using search engines like Google or Bing or picking up their cell phone to get the information there. VIP puts the information in many places through any number of technologies, rather than just on one single website.
In addition, VIP information is broad, rather than specific to just one state. That allows us to build tools that serve more voters across the country through outlets like ABC News, CNN, or NPR.
Q: Who else might use this technology and how?
A: We couldn’t survive without our technology partners. For example, using Foursquare on your smartphone, you can “check in” at various places to earn a “badge.” In 2010, Foursquare added an “I Voted” badge, the digital equivalent of the sticker handed out at the polls, that you could share with your friends via social media to let them know you voted. These messages showed up all over social media like Facebook, which offered a VIP-based polling place lookup tool of its own. Foursquare is offering this option again next year. That’s just one really innovative way that you can use VIP, not only to answer voters’ questions, but also to take the process of informing voters into the 21st century.
Q: What are the long-term goals for the project and what are the biggest challenges?
A: We plan to expand VIP to 40-plus states by the 2012 election. We also want to provide more information through VIP, not just polling places but also candidate information, registration deadlines, and information on voter ID laws, and to offer the information in multiple languages.
Beyond that, we’re working on new and innovative ways to use this information to help voters. I’ll give you an example. We’re working with North Carolina to build something called an FWAB gadget, which stands for Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. If you’re overseas or in the military, and you don’t receive your ballot on time, this serves as a backup ballot. Typically, you would have to handwrite all the candidate names and offices. If your spelling isn’t good or you have poor handwriting, the ballot may be rejected. Using VIP, we’ve built a tool that will allow you to enter your address then select from drop-down menus to interactively fill out this form using official lists of candidates and offices on your ballot.
This is just one small example—we’re looking for new ideas and new tools everyday. The only limit is creativity.
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