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Voter registration

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Online Voter Registration for Jurisdictions Large and Small

Much of OSDV's currrent work relates to election technology for voter registration.* In recent blog posts, I've been talking about voter registration in the context of OSDV's mission to put much needed, innovative election technology into the hands of elections officials and voters who are underserved by the best that the for-profit election technology market has been able to deliver so far:

  • clunky, arcane, and opaque registration systems,
  • clunky, arcane, and opaque adminstration technology, and
  • voting systems that don't accurately record votes.

(The latest in the latter saga of woe is NY state BoE's report from an investigation of how the "phantom vote" phenomena manifested itself in voting systems that recorded votes not actually cast by anyone.)

Specifically for voter registration, among the many needs is one at the front end of the process: just getting people to fill out the administrative forms that are required for voting "eligibility management:

  • register to vote,
  • update a voter record,
  • request an absentee ballot or absentee status,

or the even more arcane forms that overseas and military voters use for

  • the same purposes but with different administrative rules, plus varying state-specific requirements.

The good news for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia is that help is on the way, with a new voter service that will step a voter through each of several complex and VA-specific application forms and combinations -- and produces properly formatted paper documents that regular people can actually understand, both voters before they sign and mail the forms, and local election officials who process them.

But what about other states and localities that don't have the resources for the type of comprehensive project that the VA SBE has undertaken with OSDV and other participants? The good news for them is that there is a middle way. We took the first step a couple of weeks ago when we went live with a new release of the "Rocky" OVR assistance system operated by RockTheVote and hosted by Open Source Labs. The main feature of the new release was a web service application programming interface (API) that provides access to all of the Rocky functions. However, rather than via a browser of a user, the API provides those functions to other web sites.

How is that a benefit to elections officials, and a public benefit to voters? Sorry to make this post a cliff-hanger, but the explanation of the API will have to wait for next time. Stay tuned, it's worth it!

-- EJS

* (As some readers may have figured out already, even-numbered years to focus on registration and reporting as the voter-visible bookends of an election, while odd-numbered years have more focus on the mechanics of casting and counting ballots and data interperability to enable public transparency.)

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New Citizens: Adding Usability to the Voter Registration Process

As I wrote last time, I had the wonderful opportunity to observe a citizenship oath ceremony. It had a big emphasis on voting, and included San Francisco elections department people on hand to help the new citizens register to vote. Today, I wanted to share the flip side of what I saw, and I want to start to connect it to some election technology work that we're doing now -- work that I think can deliver some real public benefit. After the ceremony, I saw a real distinction between two groups of people. One group was clearly enthusiastic about voting as a benefit of their new citizenship. Some had already filled out the somewhat cramped and confusing voter registration application form from the packet of many administrative documents they were handed earlier. Others very sensibly got some help in filling out the forms by walking up the the table where the elections division folks were offering to help people with the form. Either way, most of them were very appreciative of the elections folks being there to help and to make sure that the completed forms got to the right place quickly.

Another group was markedly un-interested, despite the encouragement to vote, in the dealing with yet another form, more government officials, and an additional disclosure of personal info to yet another part of the government. I found it sad but understandable. But for part of this group I also felt frustrated, because I was seeing right in front of me a form of barrier to franchise, albeit largely unintentional. The enthusiastic group tended to be younger, more voluble and confident speaking English (for most of the new citizens, English is a second or third language - about 2/3 of the new citizens that day were born in El Salvador, Mexico, or the Philippines), and more technologically literate (if fiddling with a smart phone is a sign of that). The rather sizable less enthusiastic group had a lot of grandparents being assisted by younger family or friends.

For these people, the application form might well be daunting: two pages of instructions in small font in addition to a form with little boxes that are hard to read for anyone, much less a user of reading glasses. And for those who actually read the instructions, there is some real confusion over whether you can vote if you lack a driver's license or SSN. (I expect that some people lacked one or maybe both.) More vexing, the elections department people told me how conscious they were about people's need for help in doing the application form correctly, and having to deal with more paperwork, and having to take the initiative to walk over to speak to more government people, in order to get the help.

In fact, one of them said that they wished they had the voter registration form on an iPad, and each of them could work the crowd with iPad in hand to get people filling the form with as large print as needed, in whatever language was convenient, with as much online assistance as possible, and no pages of daunting instructions. That really great idea really got to me, because I had 90% of it on my laptop in my backpack. I could have pulled out the laptop, which like an iPad, could be used for browser access the online voter registration assistance service that's operated by RockTheVote, with OSDV/TrustTheVote technology that I helped build. We were so close to what the elections folks needed to be more helpful to the people standing right there!

But even with a few iPads and a printer and wireless network to connect them, the elections department folks would not quite have had what they need: an online voter registration (OVR) assistance system that is used by the government, not by an NGO that might (incorrectly) be construed as partisan. Particularly in the setting of the citizenship oath ceremony -- outside, a madhouse of partisan political organizations clamoring for attention -- the government folks need to be using government systems.

And they don't have it, at least not most elections folks, even though it is so close.

So what we need to do is get this OVR technology delivered in a way that lots of elections officials can adopt quickly, adapt and localize quickly and easily, and get into production operation quickly and easily without having to spend a bunch of money, with all the government procurement hassles that that would entail.

We need to do that; the citizenship ceremony experience made that plain, as well as the government officials' need, and so … well, so we are doing that, specifically, right now. More on details next time.

-- EJS

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