Tech companies release apps to help people vote

Technology companies of all shapes and sizes are putting up a variety of new applications with voting in mind. As CivSource reported this week, MyFairElection a new effort from Harvard seeks to create a Yelp for voting. Now, popular social media company Foursquare is out with a real-time voting map that works in partnership with Google, the Voting Information Project, the Pew Center on the States, Engage, and the New Organizing Institute to provide real-time voting data nationwide.

Foursquare is broadly known for its “check-in” feature, a first-to-market application that allowed users to alert the network of where they are, find friends or find other places to explore nearby. This feature has now been widely replicated in a variety of software applications, although the Foursquare community of users continues to provide a significant market share for the Foursquare app. Now the company will be providing an opportunity for users to be added to their “I Voted” map, effectively creating a real-time voting dataset that other users can see.

The voting features on Foursquare will allow users to find locations and directions of their polling places, learn about voter ID requirements, learn about candidates and propositions that will be on the ballot (powered by Google’s Civic Information API), and unlock ‘I Voted’ badges. The projects partners, such as the New Organizing Institute also have a variety of voting data tools like Our Vote Live, which creates a desktop dashboard of voting data and offers embeddable website tools that individuals can place on their own websites to offer up voting data snapshots. Google is also offering its own voter information tool.

While on the surface, these applications may look novel, even gimmicky, key swing states like Ohio allow smartphones and tablets in polling places and according to local officials, they expect to see people googling on site. Individuals still won’t be able to make phone calls or take pictures inside polling places in Ohio according to a story in the Dayton Daily News, but rules would allow people to use applications like those listed above. With rampant voter suppression happening nationwide, these applications may be critical to correcting misinformation at the polls and providing information about issues down ballot.

A report issued earlier this month by the Caltech/MIT voting technology project shows that technology like these applications can be beneficial to democracy in the long run, but significant changes to voting administration are still needed. Data in the report shows that between 4-6 million votes were lost in the controversial 2000 election, and not much has changed. Since 2000, voting administration has seen episodic reviews, but no real effort to reform obvious issues including the mishandling of provisional and absentee ballots as well as the dubious origins and conflicts of interest inherent in many voting technology vendors.

Authors note that the level of vote loss remains significant, “millions of votes are still being lost due to registration problems. In a democracy that prides itself on the principle of “one person, one vote,” losing this many votes due to procedural problems remains unacceptable.” They call on both vendors and state election boards to audit how they administer elections and implement measures that are responsive to current voters, not prohibitive.

The report makes a series of recommendations on this score including, “legislation mandating effective election auditing, which at a minimum would require post-election auditing of all voting technologies used in an election.” They also call for harmonization of voting requirements and vote administration standards between state governments and their localities. Authors further take aim at the spate of recent Voter ID laws, which often fail to do anything but suppress voting – “if states wish to move toward requiring stronger forms of authentication for in-person voting, the burden of identifying voters should fall upon the state and not the voter.”

“The butterfly ballot was the first attention-getting “canary in the coal mine” of elections—a warning sign that elections are complex, with dozens of interacting elements any one of which has the potential for changing the outcome of elections. So many of the important stories about elections over the last decade stem from solvable usability problems. Now is not the time to dissolve the agencies that make standards, certification, and good design possible,” authors write.