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Can New Apps and APIs Make Voting More Trendy?

BY Nick Judd | Friday, September 21 2012

Today is National Voter Registration Day, in which 1,000 organizations, ranging from Facebook to MTV to Personal Democracy Media, are trying to talk more Americans into the often circuitous and frustrating task of registering to vote in time to participate in the November elections.

Facebook is changing its Timeline feature so that users can list when they first registered to vote. MTV announced in a press release today that it will be promoting registrations on TV. Brave New Films has been coming out with YouTube videos like this one:

All of these things are geared towards making the vote seem more enjoyable. Trendier, even. Like the iPhone 5, but without Apple Maps. But behind the scenes of this registration effort, there's a growing group of technologists who are building sets of tools to bring registration, and more of the nuts and bolts of civic participation, to the web — actually putting together what developers would need to wrap the vote in an Apple-like customer experience.

Google announced late last week that it had launched a new "Civic Information API," allowing developer access to information on things like polling places and candidates. Much of this had already been in place from prior years, thanks to work by two groups that Google supports, the Voting Information Project and Ballot Information Project. But the Civic Information API offers new guidelines for developers who want to use that data, Google staffers say, and it also rearranges the framework so that developers can access more data, including from a new state-by-state dataset on voter ID requirements that's expected to come online in advance of the election, all with the same line of code.

Meanwhile, TurboVote, which wants to be a "Netflix for voting," offers an API through which a developer can pass a would-be voter's information and get a PDF of a voter registration form for that voter to print and mail in. NationBuilder announced earlier this month that it would offer free access to voter rolls both as bulk data and through API. For years, GovTrack has been providing bulk data about Congress and its members. In Nevada, the Obama campaign experimented with a technology that used a pen, controlled by a voter using an iPad, to sign registrations "by hand" for the campaign to mail in. (Nevada also opened up online voter registration for select counties, including the one that encompasses Reno.) According to a new report that Politico mentioned this morning, Democrats have been signing up voters there at a brisk clip since January.

This might seem terribly pedantic and boring. Voting is, after all, not trendy. Path is trendy. Uber is trendy. But there aren't even words to use to describe voting that are trendy. The closest you can get is sort of anatomical and awkward, like "dangling chad." Possibly the immediacy of the San Francisco crowd's "instant runoff" can do something for you, but the most sophisticated thing you can do with your voter registration in New York City is to update it through the DMV, and the DMV, sorry, guys, is also not trendy.

What makes a Path or Uber trendy is not what users are actually doing but how they do it. Path is a photo album where every picture is meticulously annotated and geotagged. Uber is about getting a cab. Scrapbooking and cab-hailing are not, in and of themselves, trendy activities. Wrap those activities in an experience that makes them fun or social, and opinions start to change.

While MTV or Brave New Films is talking up the idea of voting, these behind-the-scenes initiatives are trying to actually improve the user experience. There's even a project to create a kind of Yelp for voting. At an event around Personal Democracy Forum 2012, we hosted a team that built Poll Watch USA, a mobile application to report irregularities at the polls — including when it's taking too long to get to the voting booth. That application went for a test-drive in New York's mid-September primary elections and will be deployed in New York for the general election, although there are no plans to put it to use elsewhere in the country just yet. We reached out to Common Cause NY's Susan Lerner about the project recently and haven't heard back.

Like Path or Uber, applications built around voting could take the user-unfriendly process now required to get to the ballot box and make it easier

While it's fun to imagine apps that might introduce a Steve Jobs-esque sense of wonder and whimsy into the mechanics of civic life, one might point out that voting is not exactly like making a photo album or hailing a cab. At the best of times it is wrapped in layers of federal, state and local laws. Not only do voter ID laws vary from state to state, so do the fields that go onto a voter registration form, the ways in which one can register to vote, and even the machines used at the polling place.

But it's not like Path or Uber have had an easy ride, either. Dave Morin of Path is still digging himself out from under a torrent of user disdain after people realized earlier this year that his application was digging into their address books. Uber is a pretty apt example because it, too, is governed by a different set of rules in each city, some of which want the application to work and others that don't.

Like these tech businesses, civic hackers are putting time and money into a risky proposition. We know that people who see on Facebook that their friends have registered are marginally more likely to register, but there's no telling if the kinds of technology tools the new Google API and its ilk enable can have a significant effect on participation. That's the thing about startups: investors show up because the return is worth the risk.