3 Technologies that Could Boost Voter Participation

Next week's election may have one of the lowest voter turnouts ever. Can technology help boost voter participation? Here are three possible answers.

by / October 30, 2014

Are you planning to vote? Midterm elections are coming on Nov. 4, but voting can be a lot of work. You have to research candidates and proposed measures, find a polling place, and then find time to do the actual voting. Not voting and then lying to everyone that you did is much easier, which is perhaps why voter turnout is so low each election.

The last time more than 60 percent of eligible voters voted was 1968. Nixon won. In midterm elections, voter turnout is usually around 37 percent. Only 18 percent of registered voters participated in the 2014 California primary election, the lowest in decades.

Some, particularly members of younger generations, like to say that voting doesn’t make a difference, but it was through the democratic process that recreational marijuana use was legalized in Washington and Colorado, and that gay marriage is now legal in 32 states. Voting changes things -- but it does still feel like a lot of work.

Colorado, Oregon and Washington require all elections to be held by mail, as proponents of mail voting argue that not requiring people to leave home boosts voter turnout. Statistics for both Oregon and Washington show that voter turnout has seen a resurgence in recent years, while turnout has plummeted nationally. Some studies further support the idea that voting by mail increases participation, while other studies have found it has the opposite effect. Worse, some opponents contend that mail voting enables voter fraud and manipulation.

Mail voting aside, it doesn’t make much sense that the public should default to Nixon-era technology when it comes time to choose their nation’s future. Progress is slow, but through new websites, apps and education campaigns, there is a movement to put participation back into American democracy. Here are three technologies that could help boost voter participation.

1. 4pia

With Congress now at a 14 percent approval rating, the nation’s elected officials put the "resent" in representative democracy. For many, engaging with democracy starts before they vote, following their elected officials on Twitter and offering feedback. The creators of a website called 4pia.com (4 People In Action), say new communication channels can get people engaged with government.

4pia is a congressional tweet aggregator that attempts to empower its citizen users and inform its politician users. Visitors to the site can view tweets of elected officials and vote them up or down. Elected officials who subscribe to the site receive analytics reports showing them how people reacted to their messaging. 

The website provides a mechanism for connecting representatives and the public where previously there was little contact, said 4pia Founder Rani Yadav-Ranjan.

“The members so far love this because this is an instant poll for them, it’s an accurate poll because rather than a random sampling of just women or just men or just Republicans or just Democrats, you’re actually seeing what America is, which is a melting pot, because people in every district in America are not just one party, yet it’s those people that the elected officials represent,” Yadav-Ranjan said.

Their data analytics are powerful and accurate, Yadav-Ranjan said, and to prove it they sometimes predict voting outcomes before they happen. One such prediction made by 4pia was the surprise ousting of House Republican Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary in June. Dave Brat ended up besting Cantor 56%-44%, despite only raising $206,663 to Cantor’s $5.4 million.

“When we looked at the tweet cloud and overlapped the two words in analysis, there was a huge disconnect,” Yadav-Ranjan explained. The 4pia tweet cloud shows which words are trending from politicians on Twitter, updated every five minutes and refreshed every 24 hours.

4pia calls its citizen users influencers because that’s what they want its users to do – influence the behavior of elected representatives. Just as social media campaigns affected the outcome of the last two presidential elections, social media will continue to drive behavior in an increasingly digital world. Tools like Twitter and 4pia provide new insights into political discussions that previous generations were unable to unearth. By sorting tweets by key word, 4pia was able to reveal that Republicans weren’t commenting on the women’s wage issue, and likewise that Democrats avoided using the word “men” in their tweets.

“We are beyond the X generation and the millennials,” Yadav-Ranjan said. “We are now in the generation of the 15-second news cycle and 140 characters. The only way [Congress] is going to get their rating up is to be responsive to what people are saying and how would they know what people are saying? … Ninety percent of America is fiscally conservative and socially active. People want to do the right thing. It’s only the parties that keep polarizing.” The power of 4pia, Yadav-Ranjan said, is that it filters out all the other noise on Twitter, allows its users to focus on what politicians are saying, and let their own voices be heard.

As for 4pia’s ability to bring about change, Gartner Research Director Brian Blau said he’s unsure. “I’ve seen lots of other websites like this, not necessarily focused on congressmen, but other types of topics where you’ll have a website that brings together information around a particular subject,” Blau said, adding that he sees the value in 4pia but thinks it may have a few severe limiting factors.

“Everything that’s there can be found on the Congress person’s website, on other parts of the Internet,” he said. “If you compare the way this looks to some of the other popular content aggregators, this website looks unprofessional. Not that it's not functional, but it’s not well designed if you compare it to a mass-market consumer aggregator site.”

Hootsuite, Blau said, is one of many free solutions that would allow someone to achieve the same goal, but better. “At the basic level, congressmen definitely want to understand what their constituents are saying and they have lots of ways of doing that, and I think having more ways is probably better for them,” said Blau. “Let’s assume [4pia] is very popular. If lots of people use it, that’s going to be one signal for Congress to understand and they probably want to look at lots of different ones. But if it’s just a few users, congressmen probably don’t worry because they have hundreds of thousands or millions of constituents.”

2. Voting Information Project

Organizations in the information business, like Google, know that people struggle with finding basic voting information. That’s why the Internet giant partnered with the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2008 on the Voting Information Project (VIP). Pew’s Director of Election Initiatives David Becker explained that the basic information of where to vote and what’s on the ballot was not easily available to people.

The Voting Information Project attempts to link the information held by state and local officials with potential voters. Through tools like Google’s Civic Information API and the Voting Information Project tool, voters can find information more easily, which could mean they might actually show up to vote.

“When the information of where to vote and what’s on the ballot is available, people use it. In 2012, there were about 25 million hits on the Google API for this information, a remarkably large number,” Becker said. “We’re expecting over 10 million hits during the midterm election, even though turnout will be significantly lower. It could be significantly more than 10 million, particularly since VIP is also partnering not just with Google, but with Facebook and Foursquare and other members of the Internet association to try to drive this information out to as many of their users as possible.”

VIP has created several free tools, all aimed at getting more people to vote. Generic Android and iOS apps provided by VIP allow municipalities to brand the app for their region, as Kansas did with the release of the VoteKansas app. Potential voters who don’t own smartphones can text “VOTE” or “VOTO” to 69520 for basic voting information. A social media network called ElectionDesk helps state and local election officials engage their populations on Election Day through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

Today’s voting systems are antiquated, Becker said, and there’s no one solution to fix them. “We’re looking at overall how to take the process and move it into the 21st century and that often involves using technology,” said Becker. “There’s no one intervention that’s a magic wand for turnout. There are just too many factors that could implicate turnout in many ways. Weather can implicate turnout, what’s on the ballot, who’s on the ballot can have an impact on turnout. Addressing it as a complex issue and trying to see what’s really going on in voters’ minds and driving voter behavior is important and if you can make any slight uptick in getting people more engaged for whatever reason, that’s a positive and certainly technology is a great tool. Technology won’t change human behavior at all, but I do think what it does is facilitate human behavior.”

3. Modernized Voting System

Los Angeles, which has one of the largest pools of potential voters in the nation, has been pursuing modernized voting technology for years. Dean Logan, Los Angeles county registrar-recorder and county clerk, explained that Los Angeles is still using punch cards from the 1960s, but the size and diversity of the city make upgrading a slow process. Printed materials have to be available in nine languages and reach an audience of more than 4.7 million registered voters.

In late October, the county signed a contract with IDEO, a user-centric design firm, to develop the design specifications for some components of the county’s new voting system.

“We adopted a grass-roots model in the early stages of this project to rather than simply putting some specifications together and putting out an RFP; we did user research, find out what our voters like about their voting experience, find out what they wish was different, what are the trends that are out there, not just in voting and elections but in other interactions people have with technology and civic engagement,” Logan said.

They targeted younger people because the county wanted to be forward-thinking and design a voting system that was tailored to the expectations of younger generations, Logan said. To avoid falling into the same trap the county finds itself in today, the county intends to make the new system adaptable and built affordably from commercial components. That way, Logan explained, when voting behaviors and user expectations change in a few years, the county will own the system and know how to adapt it to a new cultural landscape.

“I don’t think there’s a defined destination,” Logan said. “It’s more of an approach or a philosophy that recognizes that in order for voting to be relevant, we have to constantly be having that dialog with the electorate and paying attention to the trends in society in terms of voter behavior, in terms of how people interact with other governmental services, and how they respond to technology. I think that’s an ongoing thing.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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