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New Organizing Institute to Move from Collecting Election Data to Organizing Election Officials

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, June 18 2013

When President Obama delivered his acceptance speech on Election Night last November, he alluded to the long lines at polling places and paused to add: "By the way, we have to fix that."

The New Organizing Institute, a progressive nonprofit that trains campaigners and is now led by former Obama for America data director Ethan Roeder, is launching a new initiative next week aiming to "fix that" for local elections. NOI will announce a national network where local election administration officials can congregate to share solutions to common issues.

It's a transition for a team at NOI that had previously been managing the Voting Information Project, which collects data on polling places, election districts and voter registration deadlines and prepares it for third parties in machine-readable format. In the 2012 election cycle, backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and partnered with Google, VIP made information available in all 50 states.

Pew Director of Elections Initiatives David Becker says VIP will continue, and talks are in process now to improve the project for later election cycles.

NOI is calling its new project ELECTricity, and as an initial goal have pledged to connect officials in the the 25 most populous jurisdictions. For example, says NOI's Tiana Epps-Johnson, officials who manage elections in New York would be able to share ideas with counterparts in other major cities like Chicago or Los Angeles rather than closer, smaller cities. For example, every year the New York City Board of Elections must recruit 30,000 poll workers and get them to show up at the right places on Election Day. Elections officials in Chicago do this every year by partnering with outside organizations and recruiting student poll workers.

NOI plans to publish a case study next week that focuses on how Cook County's director of elections used GIS software and predictions about voter turnout to estimate how many ballots to make available in each election precinct. NOI plans to highlight that story and explain how to use Google Fusion Tables to do the same thing at little or no cost.

The NOI team of organizers and developers working on this initiative come to it after three years working on outreach to state-level election for VIP, which was started in 2007 and has also counted AT&T, Facebook, Foursquare and Microsoft as partners over the years. The idea behind VIP was that with that underlying dataset, partners could make it easier for people to find out how to vote using everyday tools like Google and Facebook rather than having to track down an election website. Third parties like the Obama campaign also used the same data to tell voters when and where to cast their ballots by email and text message.

VIP forms a data backbone for a Google project called the Civic Information API, which offers polling place data, along with other information, for developers to use.

During the 2012 election cycle, Pew, NOI and the tech companies made available polling place and ballot information along with registration deadlines for all 50 states.

Becker said that Pew plans on continuing VIP. He said that he is in San Francisco this week meeting with Google and 30 election administration officials and Secretaries of State to figure out how to automate even more of the data collection process for the next major election cycle.

"The board just re-affirmed its commitment for the next several years," Becker said in an interview. "We're going to be working with Google, and other tech partners, such as Microsoft and Facebook, to continue to build VIP into one of the most widely used civic information tools in the world."