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New York City Looks to Technology to Grow Voter Turnout

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, August 9 2013

(NYCCFB/Facebook)

Even though New Yorkers will have to vote with old-fashioned lever machines in the September primary elections, New York campaign finance officials and candidates are looking to 21st century technology to try and encourage voter participation and interest, especially among younger voters.

For the candidates, technology is playing a role in policy, outreach and advertising.

Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn has her own mobile app and a technology agenda. Anthony Weiner included technology priorities as part of his interactive campaign booklet Keys to the City, though some New York civic technologists suggested his points revealed his ignorance of the city's progress. Independent Jack Hidary, a technology entrepreneur, has been using Crowdtilt to raise money for a campaign office and Thunderclap to promote his campaign. Weiner, John Liu, Sal Abanese and Adolfo Carrion participated in a June candidates technology forum sponsored by the Coalition for Queens. (There was also a forum for the Queens Borough President race.)

Candidates Quinn, John Catsimatidis, Carrion and Albanese are among those who have spent money on online advertising on Facebook and Twitter, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB).

Bill de Blasio produced web videos as part of his outreach to Latino and Black voters, while Anthony Weiner used a video ad to reiterate his intention to stay in the race after his newest scandal broke. In releasing a video with an endorsement from Gloria Steinem, the Quinn campaign announced "a multi-pronged effort to energize female voters [that] includes online social media advertising [and] a targeted female GOTV effort," as Politicker reported.

The candidates are facing an historically unengaged electorate, as a WNYC interactive mapping turnout from the 2009 race across the city titled "Where People Don't Vote" indicates.

Wednesday night at the New York Tech Meet-Up, the New York City Campaign Finance Board unveiled its own initiative to make participation in the voting process easier: a mobile web application with voter registration and candidate information. The voter tools are an addition to an earlier release of the application this spring, which first made it possible for campaign staff to collect mobile campaign contributions.

Art Chang, a member of the CFB and chair of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee Chair, has a technology background as founder and CEO of Tipping Point Partners, and spearheaded the development of the application, which Pivotal Labs developed and Method designed pro bono. When voters currently first access the mobile app at http://nycvotes.org, they see registration deadline information and direction to Turbovote to fill in their voter registration forms online, and can look up candidate information by office or location. New York state has an electronic voter registration system through the Department of Motor Vehicles, but the mobile tool offers an alternative option for those who may not have the right identification, said Eric Friedman, the CFB's Director of External Affairs.

At the NYTM, Chang noted that it would be up to the legislature to change the currently existing wet signature requirement. He also said that the CFB had been in discussions with the state and city Boards of Election about being able to integrate with the Motor Voter system and the voter registration database.

The plan is to "roll out features on almost a daily basis," Chang said last night. In upcoming releases leading up to the September 10 primary and the November general election, voters will be able to make contributions to the candidates using the system, and the tool will also indicate how much that contribution is worth through the city's public financing program. In addition, voters will be able to make an account, look up biographical candidate information and polling place information, as well as populate a ballot with candidate preferences and share that information with their social networks. The software underlying the tool will be made available in open-source form with the idea that other municipalities could adapt it.

"Integrating with a legacy system is always a messy thing, but we met the [CFB] in the middle, and we found a good way to get all this data out of the legacy system into a modern format that everyone can use," Michael Schubert from Pivotal Labs said at NYTM.

"Turnout in the last election has really not been where it should be should be, it's been embarrassingly low....younger people vote less often....this tool is designed with younger voters in mind," Friedman said.

Other approaches to encouraging voter participation emerged from a hackathon last weekend in New York City sponsored by the Voting Information Project and the Pew Charitable Trusts, among others.

The grand prize at the hackathon went to Sara Michener for her Governleap project, which aims to present candidate biographical information stripped of identifying gender and policy position information.

Michener, a designer without a coding background, first came up with the idea for the Equal Futures App Challenge, but wasn't able to complete a prototype when her developer became ill. At the NYC hackathon, she was able to work with developer Jin Thakur to establish a prototype using the biographical information of one U.S. Senate candidate. While she would be interested in taking it to the next level, at the moment she doesn't have the coding skills or funding to do so. "You win the grand prize but if nobody steps up to develop this further, you're kind of on your own," she said. "You need a developer....need funding, and the main problem is how to write the [biographies]." Based on the example from the prototype, she said one difficulty is that the English language lacks gender-neutral pronouns. While one option could be to automate the creation of such biographies by extracting texts and replacing identifying words, for example through an API, she said she thought it might be easier to crowdsource such biographies and to have somebody review and factcheck the submitted entries.

The Twilio Prize went to Margaret Kim, Yvonne Leow, Katie Zhu, Marco Chang, Dan Hill and Chris Smith for FQ, a tool looking to tackle the long lines problem by tracking and reporting wait times at polling places by text message on election day using the Twilio service. After entering their phone number to receive notifications, voters indicate their polling place and when they would like to vote, making it possible to anticipate the heaviest wait times, Leow said. On election day, voters standing on line can submit information about how many people are ahead of them. While the tool is currently using dummy data, Kim said the idea is that computation of the wait time from those sources would be built into the app.

The "big question" the team members faced in building the app was how to get the data, as they considered Facebook and Foursquare check-ins as well as crowdsourcing, Leow said. Another challenge, Kim said, was balancing the desire to address the well-known problems of the registration and voting process with the reality of the hackathon's limited time and inability to communicate with the relevant government systems. The team has been in contact with the event's judges and Pew about ways to implement the prototype, Kim said.

The Azavea Prize went to Kevin Gao, Pu Shi, Allan Zhang and Zhemin Zhang for We Vote, We Ride, a tool to help voters and volunteers organize car pool rides to polling places. Shi and Zhang are co-founders of S22lab, a start-up focused on mapping and geo-location services. According to Shi, there are plans to continue optimizing the application and to improve the routing algorithm, and to develop a cloud based carpool management platform and open APIs for developers to plan carpool activities. Zhang and Shi also said they would be able to further develop the platform based on client interest and specifications.

The Microsoft Prize went to Avi Das, Vaisyaraju Aditya Raju and Govindaraj Kathirvel for Know Your Representatives, a mobile application offering candidate information built using Windows Azure, Twilio and Azavea.

In many ways, the challenges the winners face in implementing their prototypes echo the issues Susannah Vila raised in her recent WeGov piece "The Permanent Hackathon", which highlights efforts to move from the short-term hackathon model to more sustainable, long-term initiatives.

Jared Marcotte, manager of Election Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the hackathon was scheduled as early as possible before the primary so there would be time for further development of the prototypes for use in the actual election.

One hackathon attendee who was especially impressed was Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. "It was great, I've never been to anything like that," she said, adding that she was "really impressed" by the speed of the prototypes' development.

Merrill especially highlighted the tool to address long lines and the carpool tool. She said she hoped to work with the Hacker League to organize a similar event in Connecticut geared towards local talent and and the state's specific voting challenges. While the long lines were less of an issue in Connecticut, she said she would be interested in mobile tools and tools that offer non-partisan candidate and ballot information. She noted that it can often be difficult to innovate in this area in government due to bidding processes and intellectual property issues, but "I don't see any reason with why we can't experiment to a degree."