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Looking to Tech for Help With Life After the Voting Rights Act

BY Nick Judd and Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, July 10 2013

(Jesse Kriss/Speakerdeck)

The 2012 presidential election hinged on simple math, but the Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn part of the Voting Rights Act is likely to make 2016 more complicated.

That much everyone seems to agree on. Thanks to a dysfunctional Congress, the court's decision means that the Voting Rights Act is a less useful tool for people defending easier access to the polls. After the ruling voided the framework Congress was using to enforce the law, some states are primed to move ahead with bills that create more hurdles between voters and the ballot box, like the controversial requirement that voters have an ID with them as they go to cast their vote. Lawmakers met with the president to discuss the VRA Tuesday, and a Senate committee is moving forward on possible changes, but amending the law would require bipartisan cooperation that has been absent on everything from gun control to immigration to the Farm Bill. It's unlikely to happen soon.

For many, November 2012 was already a pain thanks to some of the conditions that might become more frequent without the Voting Rights Act's protection. The VRA slows the pace of changes to election law in just nine states as well as select counties and cities around the country. Even with the VRA, officials instituted new restrictions, changed early voting guidelines and made other modifications that may have contributed to a famously chaotic election day and a promise from the president to reform elections. A Pew survey found that people of color were more likely to be affected by long wait times to vote in last year's elections — exactly the racial imbalance in access to the ballot that the VRA was passed to stop.

So, looking ahead to elections that may happen in many states without Voting Rights Act protection, ballot access activists are drawing lessons from the recent past. Nonpartisan organizers and campaign staffers alike used new tools last year to help people stay abreast of when to vote, where to vote, and what to bring. Election policy wonks expect online voting registration to smooth out some of the bumps on the ballot box. And when problems do arise, campaigners will have the 2012 Obama operation's example to follow in tracking and responding to election-day kerfuffles.

Staffers at Obama for America's campaign operation and the Democratic Party spent much of 2012 coming up with technological fixes to help voters meet new obligations and stay abreast of rules about when and where to vote. It turns out there were plenty of reasons for this. In Ohio, for example, early voting deadlines were in flux up until just days before the election. In Florida, 102-year-old Desiline Victor waited hours to vote and campaign staffers scrambled to reassure voters still in line as polls closed that their votes would be counted. In both states, every vote was crucial. In the end, Obama won Florida by less than 100,000 votes, or nine-tenths of one percent of the electorate, and Ohio by not much more than 100,000 votes. These narrow margins of victory — including other states where access to the ballot was an issue — may have decided the election. Five battleground states account for 75 of the 270 electoral votes Obama needed to win. In all of those states, he won by no more than 200,000 votes.

At the polls

In 2012, Obama for America listened to the online conversation to find places where confusion reigned and step in, says Teddy Goff, who was OfA's digital director.

"We did social media monitoring on election day just for terms like 'turned away at the polls,' 'long lines,' to the extent we had the ability to reach out to people or flag it to the appropriate people at the state level," Goff said.

"Until the very end of Election Day we were texting targeted parts of the country that it was our understanding that there were rumors going around that you couldn't vote if you were in line by the time polls closed, but not yet at the polls, well that's not true, and so we would text people and tell them that and obviously that kind of communication wasn't possible 10 years ago," he said at another point in our conversation.

While much is being made now of the technology infrastructure that helps the campaign identify and recruit voters, Obama for America also had tools to help get voters to the polls.

Jesse Kriss, a former Obama campaign visualization engineer, explained that there were two main elements of the campaign's voter protection tools. One helped match volunteer attorneys to assignments at different polling places; the other was an incident tracker based on Ushahidi, open-source mapping software commonly used by disaster response volunteers.

The incident tracker showed information submitted by campaign volunteers — including through a smartphone app — or from hotlines that took in reports from the public, he said. Campaign staff could filter the map by time or location so that it was immediate and tailored "real-time for just the slice" that was of interest. Local staffers could focus on issues specific to where they were while those on the national level could see larger problems or a larger number of certain kinds of incidents and use that data to take some kind of action, up to and including going to court, he said.

Kriss said he believed the incident tracker was the largest-scale deployment known so far of Ushahidi, which was first developed to track election violence in Kenya. While the campaign's software development bench was certainly full, staffers only made a few adjustments to the software for performance purposes and to add filtering options. The campaign opted to use Ushahidi "because they had done a lot of the core work, it was fairly close to what we needed and we needed to work as soon as possible," he said, helping the Obama technology team to focus its attention to where it was most needed.

"Collecting this level of detail is incredibly important," he said. "First for the initial response on that day and then having that level of detail to look at later and hopefully inform policy changes."

Without that level of tracking, he said, the only source for information is isolated reports of long lines. "This level of detail on a national level changes the power of the evidence behind the conversation."

In the future, based on other options Ushahidi has added, he said he could envision voters texting in reports directly, so long as those reports could be verified somehow. He also suggested the possibility of a public accountability monitor that would be accessible beyond an individual campaign.

"During this election, the stories were that the lines for the polls were too long," he said. "It would be fascinating to have a real-time view that was accessible to the public showing this is a problem right now."

Common Cause New York's Pollwatch platform — which began development in 2012 at Personal Democracy Forum in New York — the Daily Beast and Mother Jones' Havingtroublevoting.com and Election Protection's OurVoteLive offered functions like this.

Kriss gave a presentation on the campaign's visualization tools at OpenVis Conf 2013.

Registering to vote

The Obama campaign enrolled nearly two million voters in 2012, and their electoral equation defined the arc of last year's history — but barely. In Ohio, for example, Secretary of State Jon Husted changed early voting deadlines shortly before the election, denying all but military members the ability to vote in the three days before election day. Ultimately all early voting was allowed — but those decisions and an earlier pair of bills from the state legislature embroiled him in a legal battle with Obama for America over one of the same issues that now may be amplified in the South and in cities and counties across the country.

During a Q&A at a post-election event hosted by the Pew Center on the States, Obama's national field director, Jeremy Bird, introduced himself to Husted from the floor as "part of the team that sued you" and accused him of being "disingenuous" in a tense exchange that revealed just how crucial a role Obama's team had anticipated for equal access to the vote.

Husted defended his actions by saying he did what he could to uphold the law, and that the laws passed by the legislature were not his to decide.

But for voters, how to register, how to get on the ballot and what to bring to the polls are questions that might make voting simply too complex to bother with. Beyond partisan politics — a place Husted and Bird both at least say they'd like to go — moving as much of the process online for as many people as possible might be a solution.

"In terms of technology, I think the biggest potential opportunity a lot of us have been working on is to bring voter registration online," said Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. Online registration is heavily used by low-income or middle-income voters, she said, and also makes it easier for third-party groups to reach out to disenfranchised voters.

"We'll be spending just as much time working to pass online voter registration and building out third party registrations tools to connect to the systems so we can be out their registering and bringing more and more people on to the rolls and seamlessly pass them on to the states," Smith said.

"There's this incredible momentum in the states," Smith said. "It's smart policy, it saves the states a lot of money, increases the efficiency and accuracy of the voting rolls and makes it more accessible."

Twelve states currently offer online voter registration. The National Congress of State Legislatures says 17 states have laws providing for paperless registration and that more are moving in that direction with state legislation.

Smith hopes 25 states will have online voter registration by 2016, making Rock the Vote's outreach efforts easier by allowing potential voters reached online to register without even logging off.

The group sends out email and text message notifications about voter registration to users who sign up with Rock the Vote, and integrates with social media.

"If you turn 18 on Facebook, you might get a reminder," she said. Young voters can text "where" to a number to get their polling place information. "We set up all sorts of tools and proactive reminders that are personalized to them with what they might need to know," she said. "We try not to scare them about voting," she added, but rather present the information as a way to help voters navigate the rules.

Rob Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters, said that groups need to address existing voting policies head-on. He cited as an example a pilot ID outreach program the group organized in Wisconsin, where a series of legal challenges forced Republican state officials to defend in court a law requiring voters bring identification to the polls. The League of Young Voters, as part of a coalition of elected officials and other groups, focused on a small sample of 150 people in a pilot designed to help high school students get identification at no cost.

As part of the ID program, the League sent texts with introductory survey questions to help identify what the young people needed and who could help, and afterwards was able to help them set up rides to the DMV.

Separately, the League built a large text-messaging list and worked with the SMS provider Mobile Commons to use it to spread information about polling places.

"Our first communication with them is not to talk to them about their I.D. problems, but about voting, and then we send a text that engages with the I.D. question."

These efforts are important in part because although younger voters are among those most impacted by voter ID laws, they have historically been among those who follow politics the least.

Young people are not following the Voting Rights Act decision, Baker said.

"They're following what's happening with Paula Deen," he said.

But just releasing an application to collect election-day complaints or to help people navigate voter ID laws isn't enough — even staff inside Obama's vaunted operation sweated over legal approval for language describing election laws and requirements. In places like Ohio, these rules were at the mercy of judicial intervention and could change at any time.

In the run-up to last year's election, voting rights activist Faye Anderson from Philadelphia spearheaded the development of a mobile web and text message application called Cost of Freedom informing voters about the different voter I.D. requirements in each state. The application is no longer online, Anderson said, since other groups have released their own tools. There's now a mobile application from the Election Protection coalition led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, for example.

But there's another reason. Anderson said she didn't have the resources to keep the information up-to-date and accurate by herself. While 2012's projects show examples of what works, they also show examples of what doesn't, and tracking the rapidly changing and complex world of election law is a lot to take on. Absent measures to shore up the VRA, that task may get even harder.

"It's easy to launch an app," she said. "It's quite another task to maintain it."