This week, millions of voters will confront not only the decision of who to vote for, but also the more mundane questions of where and when to vote, whether they need to bring identification, and who or what exactly will be on the ballot.
Despite the march of technology that makes that information available online to more and more people, finding the correct information for a given voting district has been a continuing challenge for veteran and prospective voters alike, as well as state and local election officials.
That disconnect became clear to researchers working for the Pew Center on the States, dating back to 2008, when Pew’s election research revealed that 120 million people went online in search of answers to basic questions about the general election and typically couldn’t find the answers they were looking for.
That led the Pew Center to begin working with Google – and more recently Microsoft, Facebook, FourSquare and ATT – to find a better, more standardized way to help state election officials deliver reliable voting information to the public online and via mobile devices.
Voters across the country are expected to discover that information starting this week – by way of a voting information web application embedded on more than 500 websites across the country.
The Voting Information Project application, or gadget, will allow users to enter their registered address and get a response showing a map with the location of their polling place, the hours that location will be open, and links to election details including ballot information.
What we found back in 2008,” said Pew Center’s Director of Elections Initiatives David Becker, “was that no standardized, reliable source existed for voters to obtain basic election day information. They want to know: Where’s my polling place? What’s on my ballot? Do I need to bring anything? The information was on official websites, but hard to find – especially where voters were looking, which was primarily news websites, search engines, social media.”
That resulted in the Voter Information Project, and a joint effort to create open source software tools (now available from Google and Microsoft) that can be embedded on websites and smartphone applications. The so-called APIs can pull information from official state databases that contain the polling information that voters routinely need, said Becker (pictured above.)
But the VIP initiative also required working with state election officials to secure real-time data feeds containing local election information, much of which changes right up to election day.
Initially, the project began as a polling place finder, said Becker. But it soon expanded to include more information and became available in more and more states. By the 2010 election cycle, the VIP initiative had attracted participation by 19 states – including California, Iowa, Missouri, Maryland and Virginia – and the District of Columbia to provide polling information electronically to the project, and was available on more than 320 websites.
In this upcoming election, the VIP initiative will have more than 40 states providing election information feeding into Google’s and Microsoft’s search gadgets, which have been embedded in more that 500 websites, according to Becker, and will be available under such names as VoterHub.
VIP is not the only initiative to bring voters online access to election information. Sites such as Rock the Vote and LiveBallot.com, developed by Democracy Live, also provide online polling information guides, and even the ability to confirm voter registration. But VIP is trying to bring a greater degree of standardization to the data feeds from state officials that supply information to these tools.
Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan appreciates the challenge Pew faces in trying to gather and disseminate election day information.
“A lot of this information is very decentralized,” said Carnahan. “Even in my state, as the chief election official, I don’t come up with the polling locations. We rely on local election officials to provide that information. We try to consolidate that for Missouri. Pew is trying to do that nationally at a time when people are getting information in a very different way.”
Missouri, like most states, provides voters with a dedicated site – GoVoteMissouri.com – where voters can obtain sample ballots and details on where to vote.
“But it is important we get as much information out as possible, in ways (the public) can use. Technology is very important in trying to make use of every means possible,” she said.
Providing on-demand access to voting information not only helps voters, however, said Becker. “It also saves governments money by reducing phone calls and mailings” – and perhaps most of all, by reducing the volume of provisional ballots, he said.
When voters end up at the wrong polling place, federal law requires they be given a provisional ballot, which, similar to an absentee ballot, must then be hand-checked against registration records before the vote can be counted, which can add untold expenses to local polling districts.
Reducing voter confusion would go a long way toward alleviating the costs associated with provisional ballots.
Internet voting still out of reach
For all that technology is enabling, he believes online voting is still a long way off.
“Unlike other transactions, where you can link a banking account back to the real person, you have to be able to separate the ballot from the voter to preserve the voting process” as it is currently set up in the U.S., said Becker.
“It’s not just the act of casting the ballot” either, he said. “The majority of problems happen because voters’ records are not up to date” at most local polling locations, Becker said.
“So if you want to run the best-run polls, you don’t go to the end of the process, where voting happens, but at the beginning of the process, to where election official need to have the tools and the most up to date tools records,” he said.
This story was updated Nov. 5, to included additional information about other available online tools for finding election information.