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Voting Information Project Automation Effort Draws on State Innovation

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, January 17 2014

The Voting Information Project (VIP) announced this week it would be providing general election data for all fifty states and Washington D.C and primary election data in selected states this year, as it works on automating the process in the future.

The VIP is a partnership between state and local election officials, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and technology companies including Google, Microsoft and Facebook. It seeks to make election data, including polling places, candidate information and ballot questions, easily accessible online through tools such as Google's Voter Information Tool and the Google Civic Information API.

In a blog post, Jared Marcotte, technology manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Election Initiatives, noted that in addition to providing nationwide general election data, VIP would also this year be providing primary data in states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.

To build on VIP's success so far, automating the data transmission process is a significant priority over the next year and beyond, David Becker, director of election initiatives at Pew, said to techPresident. He noted that there had been 25 million lookups around the 2012 elections and 850,000 in 2013 in connection with the Virginia and New York City elections.

By automating the data collection process as much as possible in the states, the hope is to get to a point after 2014 where VIP will "always be on and always have information about the next election for any voter," he said.

This year the initiative hopes to start that process with about 20 states that already have advanced technology infrastructure in place, including Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware, Becker said. "These are great examples of states that have worked really hard to harness technology at many levels," he said, praising the culture in those states and their initiative in bringing in skilled technologists, independently of partisan affiliation and geography.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is decentralization. A state election office may be ultimately responsible, but this information is largely the responsibility of the counties, cities and other localities to collect with a great deal of variety in the sub-jurisdictions," Becker said. The states at an advantage have not only embraced the technology, but "have been working very closely with their localities and making it easy for them to publish the data up to the state level," he said, pointing out that it's generally the estimated 10,000 election jurisdictions in the country that assign voters to polling places and figure out what's on the ballot.

Building on the innovation already happening in the states, Becker said that Pew has helped to connect election officials in different jurisdictions and worked with vendors directly, and made an effort to document what the effects and results are for states that adopt more innovative systems.

"States that are closer to full automation have a central repository for the data at the state-level," Stephanie Bosh, communications manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in an e-mail to techPresident, with Pew and VIP aiming to work with the states that have faced challenges or difficulties collecting data, and assist them with providing it in CSV or XML formats.

Given the challenging fiscal environment and all the other work associated with national, state and local elections this year, "it's incredibly encouraging that officials in so many states...are as engaged as they are," Becker said. The goal is that the states that will be the focus this year can serve as examples in 2015 and beyond for the remaining states to show how the automation can be implemented with a "modest investment" so that in the long run "states will no longer need to invest significant resources in the VIP feed."

Democracy Works, the non-profit behind the Turbovote service, this year is working as one of the several contractors for the VIP to help states with the data collection, automation processes and quality control of the data, which could include issues such as consistency between polling place data and mapping locations.

The VIP is also working on putting out a White Label app for iOs devices that will not only let users locate polling places, but will also include text-to-speech and minority language capabilities, Becker said, emphasizing that the tool would be available for free to jurisdictions or community groups that wish to release it with their own branding.

On March 28 and 29 the third VIP hackathon will take place in San Francisco at the Impact Hub, with the goal of encouraging developers to create applications based on VIP data ahead of the California June primary and the nationwide election contests later in the year.

Pew also released new polling data earlier this week indicating that many voters are not well-informed about voting and election policies. For example, in states that do not allow voters to register on Election Day, 26 percent of registered voters thought they would be able to register on that date and 30 percent did not know whether same-day registration was allowed. In states where no excuse is necessary for an absentee ballot, 30 percent did not whether no-excuse absentee voting was allowed.