Voting at a town hall meeting in Calais, Vermont (image via Shutterstock)
Voting at a town hall meeting in Calais, Vermont (image via Shutterstock)

We asked several participants in the upcoming Techonomy 2014 conference to write an article for us on what they are passionate about right now.
A federal election is one of the most logistically challenging business models you can imagine: it’s a business that’s open only one day a year, staffed almost entirely by temps (practically volunteers) with limited advance training. Would-be customers have to sign up days or weeks in advance, but everything is still first-come, first-serve. Oh, and there’s zero margin for error. No wonder the election administrator’s prayer is “Lord, let this election not be close.”
In 2010, my friend Seth Flaxman and I set out to simplify voting. We wanted to make voting fit the way we live. In an age when the Internet connects us to nearly all the goods, services, and experiences we can imagine, and has radically changed how we buy, rent, borrow, collaborate, and more, our elections would still be largely familiar to the 18th- and 19th-century bureaucrats who established the systems we still use to run them. No wonder nearly 60 percent of registered voters who don’t cast ballots in a given election cite process issues when asked why they didn’t vote. We created Democracy Works to ensure that no voter would ever miss another election because they didn’t know how to participate.
Seth and I knew that real change calls for building innovations together with (and for) the administrators already running elections. But we also understood just how risk-averse election administrators are, even compared to other government offices. So we set out to innovate the fundamental relationship between a citizen and her democracy, from the outside. Democracy Works built TurboVote, a site that lets anyone sign up, answer a few simple questions, and then receive all the materials and information needed to get registered, stay registered, and vote in every election. Through partnerships with colleges and non-profits, we even mail paper copies to voters, along with stamped, addressed envelopes for their local election office. Since our launch in 2011, we’ve helped over a quarter of a million people cast their ballots.
But redesigning the voter experience for all 240 million or so eligible voters in the U.S. calls for more than giving them forms, texting them a polling place, and trusting that the rest will go smoothly. We know better than that. So, after the 2012 election, we set out to get acquainted with a few of the 8,000 or so local election officials across the country. We shadowed the real work of running elections, and met the dedicated staff who make it all happen. We embedded ourselves in election offices from the town of Brattleboro, Vermont (with 8,000 voters), to Travis County, Texas (with well over half a million).
What we found were dedicated civil servants testing their own improvements and making remarkable innovations. Those six offices were already incubating dozens of great ideas that just need more supportive technology and broader adoption. But where Travis County has the scale and influence to build a better voting machine from scratch, most of the others don’t have either the resources to build sophisticated tools or the communications channels to publicize their creative hacks to election officials across the country.
As it turns out, local election administrators need and welcome external innovation support. They have big ideas they would like to try, if the right platforms and supporting tools existed. They’ll accept new processes, so long as they’ve been rigorously tested and won’t disrupt Election Day. And so we combed through all the great ideas they offered us and then spent 2014 working with nine election offices to design and develop Ballot Scout, a simple system to add intelligent mail barcodes to absentee ballots and give each one a tracking dashboard that lets them keep tabs on every ballot.
Going forward, this dual track—using TurboVote to test new ideas and reach voters directly, and a network of local election offices to build sturdy infrastructure and deploy voter outreach tools after they’re well-tested and ready to scale—will make it possible to significantly improve voting.
What’s more, by building these tools as interconnected services rather than closed apps, we allow other civic hackers, legacy election systems vendors, and others to join the process. We’re not the only tech geeks learning to speak wonk: groups like the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America are working to build new tools for government transparency and service delivery, too. And the federal government’s own Presidential Innovation Fellows helps bring creative new thinking to problems from procurement and contracting to veterans’ benefits.
This kind of change simply won’t come from government alone. External, civically minded innovators are crucial to introducing new tools and methods, and to testing them in circumstances where failure can be an option. And while streamlining processes for, say, accessing veterans’ benefits or using food stamps are far more complex and less sexy than billion-dollar apps, they’re fascinating challenges that can unlock huge public value. The current state of local government technology is a disappointment, but also an opportunity.
And in the future, the infrastructure and ecosystem we’re building for elections means that voting really will fit the way we live. Instead of making voters come to government, election administrators will be able to meet voters wherever they are. They will be able to register a voter once, and provide him or her with timely information and reminders at their fingertips or via any medium they prefer. Because shouldn’t our involvement and influence in our civic lives be as rich and as personal as in our social and commercial ones?
Kathryn Peters will speak on a panel about policy and government at next week’s Techonomy 2014 conference.