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Can TurboVote "Disrupt" Voter Registration? Knight Gives $1 Million to Find Out

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 2 2013

Photo: Chris Phan / Flickr

A New York-based non-profit will announce Thursday a new $1 million investment, part of a "sustainability round" its founders hope will raise the cash it needs to build a solution to America's voter registration problems.

Thursday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will announce that it is investing $1 million in TurboVote over three years. The money will go to help TurboVote develop a new line of business working with elections officials in counties across the country — and a platform to help officials manage the millions of data points they must track to make sure citizens can cast their vote.

In 2010, TurboVote co-founders Seth Flaxman and Kathryn Peters started working on the premise that they could do for voting what Netflix did for DVDs. Their solution was TurboVote, a website where voters could type up their information and have a voter registration form generated for them, then, for a small fee, sent to them to sign, put in a pre-addressed envelope and mail in. Critically, TurboVote uses emails and text-message reminders to nudge people to complete their registrations and go to the polls. The non-profit began reaching business deals with colleges and nonprofits to turn out voters, and TurboVote boasts that it helped 188,000 voters cast their vote in 2012.

The non-profit is working with the service design firm Reboot to study how elections officials work now, go into the lab and come out with a software suite tailored to their needs. With the help of $250,000 Knight gave them in 2012, TurboVote and Reboot are visiting six elections administration offices around the country in recent weeks to help them figure out what to build. The research concludes this week in Colorado, he said.

"Out of that research is going to come the specifics of the tool that we're going to build for election officials and that savings number," Flaxman says.

Rather than hope for a top-down solution to all of the problems that made headlines in the 2012 election — long lines, voter-registration mishaps, confusion about polling places — TurboVote's premise is that elections officials will pay for software that will help them do their jobs. While one top state elections official has called for a national, top-down standard, TurboVote would become a de-facto bottom-up standard for officials that use it — making it easier, presumably, for voters to stay registered and keep track of elections as they move across the country. And it already has 188,000 voters in its database.

In the course of our conversation I proposed to Flaxman that he had a decent value proposition to offer. TurboVote's budget in 2012 was $1 million — working out to about $5.31 per vote. Compared to the national campaigns, that's not a bad deal — but he seemed a little hurt.

"That would be the number that you would use if we were around for just one cycle," he said, "but we're trying to change that game."

TurboVote, he said, wants to "help you vote for the rest of your life."

There are far more opportunities to do so than the average voter might realize. In order to help voters manage the task of being a voter, TurboVote is compiling a database that lists every election in the country this year. (Flaxman says they're almost, but not quite, finished.)

"There's literally an election every single Tuesday every year in the U.S.," Flaxman told me.

That's not how people view voting now, but Flaxman thinks it should be — and it shouldn't be difficult for Americans to participate in every election they're eligible to vote in.

"I'm being very literal when I say we're trying to change how people think about voting," he said. "It's not something that happens every four or two years, it's something that happens constantly."

So those 188,000 voters will be prompted to vote this year, when they're eligible, and next year in the congressional elections, and onward for as long as they stay in the system.

As part of the Knight grant, TurboVote has promised to make its database of elections, as well as a database of every elections office in the U.S., available for everyone.

This is more interesting than it might first sound. Aggregate data on elections — that is, a county- or election-district-level look at elections across all 50 states — is actually hard to find, and where one can find it, it's a little messy and takes time to clean. The Voting Information Project and Ballot Information Project are working to compile information about polling places and candidates. A new Knight-funded effort to compile historical data on presidential elections is still just beginning. And a third effort, DemocracyMap, which wants to build out data on political districts and lawmakers at every level across the U.S., is in the running in another Knight Foundation grant competition. It already exists, but the data is incomplete and the code needs improving.

Think about that — it's unclear if anybody in the U.S. really has a comprehensive 50-state view of how voters are shaping the country, election by election, 52 weeks a year, every year, from sewer boards to state ballot initiatives to the U.S. Senate. No wonder fewer people voted in 2012 than in 2008 or 2004 — nobody has the data to say with authority how voters change the country over time. It's a significant effort just to understand who voted where, just as it's a significant effort to keep track of what Americans can vote on and why they should in the first place. The first aspect of TurboVote's next phase proposes to tackle the latter problem, while in doing so it will produce data that will help other people tackle the former.

There's a strong argument to be made that elections officials should be the ones doing this work directly. If TurboVote somehow loses track of a registration or a voter, that's someone whose registration is now in trouble thanks to a private enterprise — as opposed to a public body, where bureaucracy could also bring accountability. I asked Knight's national program director, Damian Thorman, about the implications of taking a public function and giving it to a private entity — even a nonprofit — to improve. (Or "disrupt.")

"We don't want to supplant federal or state or local functions, and I don't disagree that this theoretically should be a government function," Thorman told me.

"TurboVote really tries to show local governments new ways of doing business. We hope that they will adopt it. The idea is they would adopt it and TurboVote would help them maintain the system," he explained later on in our conversation.

Whatever that system will be, that is. Thorman says Knight's investment — which is structured in part as a "match," one segment of what Flaxman hopes to make a $3 million round of funding for his non-profit — is as much in the idea that TurboVote will come up with something useful as it is in this specific project.

"We're betting on the team as much as we are the product," he said.