Can Apps Close the Voting Knowledge Gap?

Frustration led to the creation of a smartphone app to inform voters about their options in Fort Bend County, Texas, and similar tools are taking hold in other parts of the state.

by Brooke A. Lewis, Houston Chronicle / October 30, 2018

(TNS) — Eddie Sajjad became frustrated in March when he was trying to find a place to vote during the primary election in Fort Bend County, Texas.

The 38-year-old called friends and asked where the closest location to him was.

“We’re in 2018. It shouldn’t be an inconvenience, or it shouldn’t take someone 15 minutes, 20 minutes or however long to locate a place to go vote at,” said Sajjad. “That doesn’t make any sense. That should be at your fingertips within literally seconds.”

Sajjad, who’s lived in Fort Bend County since 1998, realized that he might have a solution. He began working with his team from two different companies on designing an app to educate voters in the region about polling locations close to them and candidates running in the race. The free app, VotCen, which launched earlier this month, is available on Android and iPhone devices.

Sajjad’s app is among several efforts of voter outreach this election cycle. Students at the University of Texas launched an app that informs people about candidates, issues and polling locations around Travis County. An app, VoteWithMe helps individuals remind friends to vote before Election Day.

As Sajjad worked on the app, VotCen, and invested $50,000 of his own money, he became more educated about the political process himself. He learned more about the diverse group of candidates running for office within his county.

“If I can read a paragraph about somebody, I might not be completely educated,” said Sajjad. “I might not be the most informed person in the world, but I can be more informed than a person that simply chooses to vote for someone just because of the party that they represent or just because of what their name sounds like.”

Sajjad is no stranger to designing and building apps. A graduate of the University of Houston with a degree in management information systems, he oversees two companies, ISITOnline and PointofIT, that deal with designing and developing apps.

When he began building the app in August, his mission was to provide nonpartisan information about each candidate. People can find short biographical information about candidates, but there are also website links for learning more.

Ray Ali, 38, who has a video production company and has helped make political ads for candidates, said that even though he’s politically active, it’s hard for him to remember all of the people running for office when he walks into a voting booth.

“In the past, what used to happen, it was not an educated decision,” said Ali, who votes in Fort Bend County. “Sometimes you don’t know who you’re voting for and you just have to choose. What happens now is I actually get a chance to know who’s on the ballot.”

The app has been downloaded a few hundred times, but Sajjad expects thousands of downloads before Election Day. He hopes the app can be expanded to cover other counties across Texas, but would need additional funding. He wants to be able to tell voting centers how much traffic is coming their way.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at University of Houston, said technology could help boost voter turnout in Texas, especially as Houston becomes a growing space for the technology industry.

“I think just generally speaking, politics is run under the hood by younger people,” said Rottinghaus. “The more younger people that get involved, the more likely you’re going to see these kinds of developments. In general, any kind of technology that can connect voters to the process is a good thing.”

As Sajjad sat outside the Missouri City Community Center on the first day of early voting, he noted that the current political atmosphere also played a part in his becoming more politically active. He said his own political views — he’s no fan of President Donald Trump — won’t affect the app’s content.

“A person’s personal political affiliation or personal feelings should not get in the way of informing people,” Sajjad said. “My agenda is to inform voters. Do I feel like they should vote as I vote? No.”

©2018 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.