April 23, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
This November, Foursquare users will be able to receive an "I Voted" badge when they visit their polling places. In addition, voters in 37 states will have an easier time finding election information via social media and mobile devices, thanks to the Voting Information Project (VIP), an initiative of the Pew Center on the States, Microsoft, AT&T, Foursquare, Google, state elections offices, media partners and others.
During the 2010 elections, VIP's polling place locator was used more than 6 million times by voters in 20 states. This year the initiative will expand and add features. According to an introductory video, most voters now rely on social media, mobile applications, online news sites and search engines to get voting information, rather than government websites. While VIP was in place this year for some primaries and the Iowa caucuses, general election data will be available four to six weeks prior to the general election.
VIP takes state election information, translates it into an open programming format and organizes it into application programming interfaces (APIs). "Right now," said Pew Senior Associate Matthew P. Morse, "we're getting that information from 37 states, and all that information is stored in these feeds — these APIs — so that developers and whoever wants to use that information can create a user-friendly tool out of it." VIP is having a hackathon soon, said Morse: "Hopefully, newer and cooler ideas will be hatched, and all these different things will be available for the voters to use.”
"There's polling place information, there's what's on the ballot, and before the November elections there will be location-specific 'rules of the road,'" said Morse, "such as 'Do I need to bring an ID? What kind of ID is OK?' Voters retrieve information specific to them through their addresses," he said. "There's no personally identifiable information there, just the address, and then it spits out the information you need."
State election officials don't always understand open data and API, Morse said. “They say, 'Well, we have a polling place locator on our site already,' and so there is some level of education we have to go into. This is going to make [election information] available on search engines, media sites, get-out-the-vote campaigns and political party websites — and it’s all official, so it should be more accurate as it’s coming directly from the election office.”
Morse said that there are a few variables in streaming election information from different jurisdictions. “It depends on the vendor that's storing the data, and sometimes it depends on the state — they might be decentralized down to the county level, and counties have to make sure they feed information in the same way." Counties are providing data for the feeds in California, Florida, Texas and Illinois, he said. "So there are different hurdles in different states, but for 37 of them, we've been able to find solutions.”
So why is VIP needed? Some official websites, said Morse, are cumbersome. "You have to enter your name, your date of birth, your Social Security number. ... Some places you have to call and ask for the location of your polling place.” Morse said a Pew study indicated that it costs from $10 to $100 per transaction for an elections office to answer such questions. "There was an enormous amount of money going into answering these basic things that voters expect to find online by typing into Google, 'Where do I vote?'"
Morse said that he hopes a lot more local governments will use the tool on their websites this year. In 2010 most users were newspapers, TV stations, campaigns and political parties. The only government sites using the feeds were the city of Arvada, Colo.; the Virginia State Board of Elections; Yuba County, Calif.; the Hawaii Office of Elections; and the city of Lawrence, Mass.
This November, VIP will include a Microsoft Bing map, said Morse, and a mobile website. Ballots for military and overseas voters — which in the past were just blank forms the voters had to fill in — will now be a PDF that self-populates information based on the voter’s U.S. address. VIP is also developing a multilingual tool for polling places and mobile phone apps, such as VoterHub for the iPhone. And VIP is working on a social media dashboard for elected officials.
At Issue: Do voters need help accessing voting information? If so, what can counties, cities and states do to facilitate voter education?
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