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Where Do I Cast a Ballot?: Inside the Voting Information Project's Plan to Revolutionize Elections

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, October 14 2008

During election season, even the, ehrm, brightest among us can feel like dopes. The problem? The most basic information about our democracy seems frustratingly elusive. Where do I vote? When can I vote? According to voting experts, fully half the phone calls (pdf) that come in to special election-day 800 numbers set up to handle complaints from the public are simply requests for that kind of basic information. Finding out who's actually on the ballot can be even harder.

Hunting down those details can take real effort, and it's tempting to dream about a one-stop shop for everything you need to know about voting. But maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. Maybe the answer is instead making who, what, where, and how of voting so ubiquitous, that come election season, you can't help but know what it is you're supposed to do.

One of the most thrilling things to occur this election season is a below-the-radar effort happening under banner of the Voting Information Project, a joint effort of Pew's Make Voting Work initiative and the JEHT Foundation, with technical smarts contributed by Google. Borrowing thinking from the world of open-source software world, VIP is working with local governments on generating standardized election-information data sets, which Google is plugging into its sprawling data services empire. The project is still in its early stages. But the dream is that, someday, reliable voting information can be picked up by every blog, newspaper, and mapping mashup in town.

Pew's Doug Chapin describes the project as a chance to tap into "private sector knowledge to help our partners in state and local election offices tackle the issue of how to make official information about voting available to Americans." VIP offers states a one-time $20,000 helping hand for getting the open format implemented, and if a state is unable to host its feed, VIP houses the data on their servers. Underlying the project is the understanding is that the XML feeds of that the local governments produce are free for public use.

Princeton University's Aaron Strauss is driving the standardization of the project's open format. The trouble, Strauss says, is that too often voting information is locked inside Secretary of State or Board of Election's websites. Unlocking that data is no doubt ambitious. "We're not going to get all 50 states in 2008," he acknowledges, but Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, and Ohio have already published feeds, and the group expects the participation of ten states by election day. Ultimately, the VIP team would love for the feeds to include ballot information on who's running in any jurisdiction.

Then what? The data is already pouring into Google's Vote Map, which serves up basic voting information tied to voters' street addresses. And that's only the beginning. "People on the Internet are very creative," jokes Strauss. VIP's data will eventually power the just-launched GoVote from CREDO Mobile and the New Organizing Institute. (Note: the site is still in beta.) GoVote offers users some super-charged tools: displaying early voting locations, notes on what to bring to the pools. An impressive language toggle gracefully flips back and forth between English and Spanish, serving up information on Dónde votar temprano and Qué debes traer. The neatest feature, though, is probably campus-specific voting details; have a look, for example, at the profile for Ohio State University. (Don't forget your ID or electric bill, folks!)

GoVote adds one more twist to the dream of ubiquitous and useful voting know-how. Some parts of the site are tagged with an "edit" option; user-submitted changes go back to CREDO for review before they're implemented. Becky Bond, CREDO's political director notes why that's remarkable: "People who use the site are continually improving the data. They can correct it for the next person who comes." So if you discover that your polling place has been moved, you can correct that in the database. And GoVote shares the wealth. Like with the Voting Information Project, its XML feeds are made public. Developers are encourage to use them to build their own voting apps -- spreading information about where, when, and how we vote far and wide.

"I think people should know where they should vote," says Aaron Strauss. And when we do, we'll all feel a little bit smarter.