Oct 10 2013

Civic Hacking and Ingenuity Ease Election Technology Challenges

As the nation prepares for this year’s elections, the state of election IT is being shaped by volunteers.

While social media activity was used as a crystal ball for the 2012 presidential election, this year unforeseen mechanical errors and budget constraints for new voting technology mean some states and counties are left to their own devices.

Whether there are frustrating technical glitches, agonizingly long lines at the polls or voting registration complications, election officials across the country are faced with daunting challenges from both a technical and an organizational perspective.

As Election Day across the United States draws near, many are wondering: Will technology be able to save the day?

The Race to Modernize Voting IT

Stringent budgets and nonexistent IT staff make integration of technology into the election process a challenge for residents of smaller counties in California, according to a report from California Forward.

The San Benito County Registrar of Voters website was overhauled, thanks to ingenuity and perseverance. The county’s clerk-auditor-recorder, Joe Paul Gonzalez, turned to a group of volunteers (which included his wife) to revamp the county registrar’s website. Now, the website “features easy-to-find forms, an open access portal and explicit information on campaign finance.”

On the East Coast, Marylanders and New Yorkers are frustrated with outdated, malfunctioning voting machines. The already sparse touch-screen machines in Maryland are reaching the limit on the 10-year manufacturer’s warranty, according to a report from MarylandReporter.com, and New Yorkers must resort to using lever voting machines from the 1960s because “the counting process with the [modern electronic scanners] is too cumbersome to use,” according to a report from The New York Times.

Although election specialists in NYC continue to point their fingers at everything from the city’s poor planning to the inevitable wear-and-tear on the voting machines, independent civic hackers are taking matters into their own hands.

Civic Hackers Take on the Election

Recently, a hackathon sponsored by the Voting Information Project and the Pew Charitable Trust resulted in the development of some innovative tech tools to encourage voter participation, according to a techPresident report. Designer Sara Michener took home the top prize for her GovernLeap app. The learning tool encourages voters to put aside preconceived notions about candidates: “Learn their stories first. Then learn their gender, identity, and party affiliation.” However, this project is stuck in limbo while Michener seeks to acquire more coding skills, find a developer and secure funding.

Margaret Kim, Yvonne Leow, Katie Zhu, Marco Chang, Dan Hill and Chris Smith won the Twilio Prize at the hackathon for their web and text-messaging platform FQ, which aims to reduce the time voters spend in line at the polls. Using cloud communications company Twilio’s services, the hackers hope FQ will keep voters better informed about long lines at polling locations, which have been cited as a factor in lowering voter turnout.

Candidates Use Tech to Their Advantage

While state and local officials may be hindered by budget constraints, inexperienced personnel and old technology, candidates are embracing mobile technology and social media at an impressive pace.

Candidates are increasingly relying on social and mobile to boost voter participation through outreach and advertising. Former New York mayoral contender Christine Quinn spread her policy proposals statewide with her personal mobile app, according to techPresident. Jack Hidary, an independent candidate in the NYC mayoral race, is using Crowdtilt and Thunderclap to raise funds and promote his campaign.

More than anything, the most important part of including IT in the electoral process is to better disseminate easily digestible data for voters.


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