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Mobile Voter Registration Apps May Be Ready for Midterms

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, April 13 2010

The magic and revolution heralded by the iPad has yet to arrive. Despite this, one organization is already preparing the stage for the iPad to pull votes out of a hat this November.

Project Vote, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization that promotes higher voter registration rates in low-income and minority communities, announced last week that they are working on a mobile-device-friendly voter registration application, according to a press release, that will work on anything from the BlackBerry to the magical iPad.

But a magic wand it ain't: In the release, Project Vote admits that there are only four states (Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) that allow electronic voter registration. The chief executive at Project Vote's vendor, Carlos Carbonell of Echo Interaction, says the app is highly experimental — more a proof of concept than a working prototype.

And as it apparently has yet to released, maybe "proof" is going a bit overboard.

Using a mobile voter registration application, a volunteer canvassing a neighborhood (preferably, I presume, on a Segway, and wearing a brightly colored, patriotically themed helmet) is supposed to be able to collect the information of a prospective voter right there on his iPad, then electronically transmit that information along to that state's board of elections, or secretary of state, or whichever group is responsible for administering elections and voter registration.

The idea isn't that far removed from what states want to do themselves. Shane Hamlin, assistant director of elections in the state of Washington, told me yesterday that officials there recently came to the conclusion that people should be able to register to vote using a mobile device and the state should build mobile apps to help them do so.

There's just one problem: Hamlin also said he's not aware of a way for the data to actually get from the iPad to elections officials. At least in Washington, that virtual bridge has yet to be built.

I called Project Vote yesterday, hoping for screenshots or video of some sort, and received no reply. But the idea, as Project Vote Executive Director Michael Slater explains, according to the release, is to update a process that would otherwise involve reams of paper and hours of paperwork.

"The traditional model for community-based voter registration drives is a cumbersome pen-and-clipboard system, requiring thousands of pieces of paper to be filled out, collected, checked, data entered, and hand-delivered to election officials," Slater is quoted in the release as saying. "Project Vote had the idea to create a widget that would allow us to take advantage of emerging technology to make this process cheaper, more efficient, and more effective."

There are significant hurdles, though. The way electronic voter registration works is by asking a voter on the state's website to provide a state ID number. By checking a box, the voter-to-be also gives the website permission to query the state's database of IDs for a scanned copy of the voter's signature. (The voter had to leave that signature in order to get an ID in the first place.)

That digital signature is then ferried over to the elections database, where another copy lives in the voter's newly created voter registration record. On election day, poll workers will then compare that signature against the one the voter makes when signing in to vote. It's a way of verifying that the person who is voting is the person who is registered to vote.

The data that's involved there is all pretty sensitive. Both Hamlin and a spokesman for the Arizona secretary of state, responsible for elections in that state, said that any mobile application involved in those communications would have to be secure.

Electronic voter registration is still pretty new, and the states that have already embraced it are just getting their feet wet in the mobile space. The mobile version of Washington's elections website doesn't allow a user to finish a registration, Hamlin said.

"We're really, just, literally in the 'Oh, we need to do this' phase [when it comes to mobile applications]," he added.

There's no telling if Project Vote's application actually works yet. I called Carlos Carbonell, the head of the company that built the application, and he told me that it was initially designed to help with canvassing — that is, for collecting information about prospective voters and how they feel about a candidate or issue. It was, or is being, repurposed by Project Vote, Carbonell said.

The product is scheduled for an official first test in May, according to the press release.

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