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Upgrading Democracy: Voting Meets Tech

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by Kevin Chu, Columbia

“Lord, let this election not be close.” So goes the Election Administrator’s Prayer, a phrase haunted by the United State’s electoral meltdown in 2000 and the basic fact that elections are hard, complex operations to run.

If elections are hard, voting hasn’t been easy either. The US Census Bureau estimates that 60% of non-voters missed Election Day in 2012 because of inconvenience and registration issues—not because of apathy.

This gap is where risk-wary government meets fast-moving tech: A crop of technology-enabled nonprofits are out to upgrade the infrastructure of democracy itself by making voting accessible and user-friendly. Here are just a few of them:

VotePlz

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Sam Altman’s VotePlz is the latest in a string of efforts to create “the TurboTax of voter registration,” adding on to the likes of voter registration initiatives such as TurboVote, Vote.org, and Rock the Vote.

  • Behind VotePlz’s tech royalty is a Silicon Valley sense of urgency: Y Combinator, Segment, Planet Labs, and Workflow—VotePlz’s four cofounders all hail from impressive startup and entrepreneurial backgrounds, and they’re all invested in bringing their skill sets to making voting as frictionless as possible.
  • VotePlz bashes out new features as if it were a venture-backed startup hungry for growth. Leaderboards and social pressure backed by $1,040,000 in sweepstakes prizes? Just startup growth hacking on steroids. Calling a subsidized Uber or Lyft ride to your polling place? That’s on the roadmap, too.
  • VotePlz is laser-focused on getting out the youth vote. The VotePlz team understands millennials’ love for emojis. The team also understands that it’s getting harder each year for millennials to vote: between analog hurdles such as mailing in registration forms or finding a ride to the polls, making voting as easy as possible has never been more relevant when it comes to millennials.

VoterVOX

 

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VoterVOX connects multilingual Asian Americans and Pacific Islander volunteers to voters in their communities with limited English proficiency. VoterVOX isn’t just a translation app:

  • VoterVOX taps into the authenticity of shared heritage and family stories. A warm introduction to how an election works is better than an unhelpful poll worker’s cold shoulder at the ballot box, and is a powerful step toward encouraging voter turnout.
  • Every voter on the platform receives a translated ballot and voter information, and the platform also assists voters in ordering mail-in absentee ballots and additional resources like issue guides. English-fluent or not, dealing with bureaucracy adds more stress on top of what any language barrier already would.
  • Volunteers’ efforts are combinatorial: translated materials and resources are uploaded to VoterVOX with each volunteer’s help; knowledge and resources are pooled together to make translation easier for everybody involved.

“Smart tech and good organizing” is what fuels 18MillionRising.org, the non-profit behind VoterVOX founded in 2012 to promote Asian American/Pacific Islander civic engagement. VoterVOX is the latest example of how a self-described agile online advocacy organization can marry smart community organizing with creative, tech-enabled solutions.

Ballot Scout

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Ballot Scout provides local election offices with the technology to track the large volume of absentee ballots that go through the mail. Absentee ballots whiz through the mail by the tens of thousands during election seasons, and millions of vote-by-mail ballots are cast each year nationwide. Yet, many are lost or delayed.

  • Ballot Scout addresses the civic catastrophe of ballots disappearing en masse: As many as 9 millionabsentee ballots in the 2012 election never made it to the voters who requested them, and 2.9 million ballots never made it back to election officials.
  • Ballots are tracked with the same ease and accountability as any FedEx package. Ballot Scout enables election officials to add USPS Intelligent Mail tracking, an unobtrusive data-rich, height-based 65-bar barcode, to ballots so they can be tracked anywhere in the mailstream.
  • The technology itself is inexpensive and customizable, and its accompanying JSON API is web and developer-friendly.

Democracy Works, the nonpartisan nonprofit behind Ballot Scout (as well as TurboVote), describes themselves in terms similar to that of 18MR: as the crossroads of developers, policy experts, and civic organizers dedicated to upgrading the voting experience.

A messy and oftentimes discriminatory election system isn’t an excuse to give up your political voice. Voter turnout and registration are no longer just in the realm of policy issues; they’re problems that demand solutions at the intersection of tech, community organizing, and creative thinking—all in service of continuing to make democracy work for all its citizens.