How Helping Voters Improves Elections

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Carol Kaufmann

Pew and its partners have helped make it easier to find ballot information, improve voter roll accuracy, and ensure military votes from overseas get counted.

Pew Project: Election Initiatives

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More than 2 million votes were lost in 2008 due to registration issues. And a 2012 report found that at least 51 million eligible U.S. citizens were not registered.

As Americans prepare to vote this November in elections around the country, a vast majority will have little problem finding much of the information they need. With a smartphone or access to a computer, they can easily search online and find their polling location and a list of who and what is on the ballot just by entering their home address. They also might see an invitation to learn how to get to their polling place when posting an update on Facebook—just as millions did right before the general election in November 2016.

This easily accessible information was made possible by the Voting Information Project (VIP), a partnership created in 2008 among state election officials, Google, and Pew. “When we launched VIP, our goal was that every American would be able to use simple technology to find out voting information,” says Doug Chapin, who directs the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota and helped found the project while at Pew. “And today, they can.”

Helping voters to find election information quickly and easily was just one of the results after Pew—believing effective election systems are fundamental to democracy—began to collect data on essential aspects of the voting process 14 years ago. The goal was to understand what was working—and what was not—in the voting process.

The research produced alarming results. Forty-four states were not providing usable voting information, such as polling locations and ballot information—even on their own election websites. In addition, half of the states did not provide adequate time for military and other overseas voters to cast ballots. On the administrative side, more than 1 in 8 voter registration records were out of date: Nearly 3 million deceased people were still on voter rolls, and more than 2 million votes were lost in 2008 due to registration issues. Much of this had gone unnoticed because no one measured how well states ran elections.

With help from state election officials and partners in the field, Pew began to create initiatives that would help improve the election process. And now as Pew prepares to exit the election field, many of those same partners are helping ensure the sustainability of these efforts.

Only two states offered online voter registration in 2008, but a decade later residents in 37 states and the District of Columbia can go online to register.

What's on the ballot?

Research showed that there was no standardized reliable nationwide source where voters could learn basic information about where and when to vote, and what was on the ballot. Pew, state election officials, and Google formed the Voting Information Project, and created an open-format tool to make election data available and accessible across a range of technology platforms from social media to search engines.

Beginning with the 2010 midterm elections, voters began to access information using the tool. And in the recent 2016 federal election, Facebook, LinkedIn, Etsy, Instagram, Mozilla, AOL, Twitter, AT&T, Foursquare, and many other technology companies placed the voting tool in online locations Americans visit every day. By the time the polls closed on Election Day in 2016, users had accessed voting information using the VIP tool more than 123 million times.

This year, VIP is expanding its support of federal, state, and local elections, providing polling place locations and ballot information to potential voters in more than 100 elections in at least 46 states and the District of Columbia. “VIP’s success in putting voting information people need in places they can find it—even if they weren’t necessarily looking for it—is a worthy legacy of Pew’s investment in the effort,” says Chapin. Now, that legacy will continue under the leadership of Democracy Works, as Pew turns over the reins of ownership and management of the Voting Information Project this summer. Democracy Works is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the idea that voting should fit the way Americans live, and has worked in various capacities on VIP since 2013.

“Democracy Works is all about building technology to help voters and election officials, and VIP fits really well into that mission,” says Maria Bianchi, the new director of VIP. “We’re excited to build on all the good work done so far by increasing the number of participating states, expanding the variety of data, and distributing the ballot data more widely.”

Today, many voters use their cell phones to easily access election information such as who is on the ballot and where to vote.

How do service members abroad cast a ballot?

Around the time VIP began, Pew also turned an eye to military and other Americans living overseas. According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, only one-third of the estimated 1 million ballots distributed to military and overseas voters in 2006 were cast or counted. Subsequent Pew research resulted in the report “No Time to Vote: Challenges Facing America’s Overseas Military Voters.” The first detailed public analysis of the subject, the 2009 report revealed that 16 states and the District of Columbia did not provide enough time for overseas voters to cast ballots. Three other states barely provided time for voters to meet the voting deadlines, and six states provided enough time only if voters completed their absentee ballots by fax or email—which raised concerns about access to technology and ballot security.

The report attracted the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill and spurred passage of the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act in 2009. Eleven states with the highest numbers of military voters enacted related legislation to remove impediments to voting for American military personnel and citizens overseas, making their absentee voting more uniform, convenient, secure, and efficient.

Who's eligible to vote?

Pew also focused on who was registered to vote—and how. A 2012 report, “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade,” found that voter rolls largely were still based on paper forms reflecting 19th-century methods and had not kept pace with new technology and a mobile society. The report focused on inefficient and inaccurate voter registration processes, which are not evidence of fraud at polling places, and it found that 1 out of 8 records—some 24 million—were either no longer valid or significantly inaccurate. The research also discovered that at least 51 million eligible U.S. citizens were not registered—nearly one-fourth of the eligible population.

The report encouraged state officials to work together in a bipartisan fashion to share voter registration data in order to achieve greater accuracy, increase savings, and improve the process. In one example of the report’s influence, only two states offered online voter registration in 2008, but a decade later residents in 37 states and the District of Columbia can go online to register, check, and update their voter record.

Pew also helped to create the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a partnership that began with seven states in 2012 and today counts 22 states and the District of Columbia—covering more than 80 million eligible American voters. ERIC uses a sophisticated and secure data-matching tool to help states compare official data on eligible voters—such as voter and motor vehicle registrations, U.S. Postal Service addresses, and Social Security death records—to keep voter rolls more complete and up to date. Since its founding, ERIC states have identified numerous voter records that are likely to require an update or cancellation, including some 8 million voters who moved but haven’t updated their records; more than 145,000 duplicate records; and more than 200,000 deceased people still on the rolls. Additionally, by cross-referencing state voter rolls against other official data, such as motor vehicle records, ERIC member states identified—and contacted—more than 26 million individuals who had proved their identity but hadn’t registered to vote.

“We’ll grow,” predicts Shane Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director and the former director of elections in Washington state, one of the seven founding members. “Even though we’re six years old, I still think of us as a young organization. We’re recruiting more member states while still meeting our mission of, in part, maintaining and enhancing security and protection of our data.”

How does your state rate?

How well does each state run an election? In 2013, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pew unveiled the Elections Performance Index (EPI) to help answer the question. The index, the only objective and nonpartisan ranking of the performance of state election systems, has since become the gold standard for evaluating all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with policymakers citing it as a catalyst for driving changes that improve elections in their states.

The EPI uses 17 key indicators such as wait time at polls, turnout, and the availability of voting lookup tools to measure how well a state performed on Election Day. The index can then be used to compare a state’s performance over time and assess the impact of any reforms the state might enact.

For example, the EPI determined that from 2008 to 2014, states slowly improved at administering federal elections, according to Charles Stewart III, an MIT political science professor, founder of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, and a key partner in designing the index. And results from the most recent federal elections will be revealed soon. “It definitely looks like performance continued to inch up in 2016 overall,” says Stewart. “The items that are showing the biggest improvements pertain to putting information online. It’s now rare for a state not to have registration and ballot information online; in 2008, most states were just getting online.”

Beginning in 2018, the EPI will be housed at MIT under the direction of Stewart, who says he intends to expand the index to eventually include examinations of local elections as well. (Several states have begun, with Pew’s assistance, to develop tools to analyze election performance at the county and municipal levels.)

“The index will undoubtedly change, by including more indicators and fine-tuning the indicators we’re using. Right now, we’re working on indicators that would tap into election security,” he says. “That’s a hard nut to crack, but given concerns that have been expressed over the years, it’s really necessary.”

When Pew first got involved in voting issues more than a decade ago, it applied its standard policy approach: deep research and analysis with a focus on measurable results. “Given the millions of voters who have accessed ballot information now available to them and the scores of military men and women whose votes are now counted more efficiently, we see those results,” says Pew Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer Susan Urahn. “What is less precisely measured, but is just as sure an advance, is how this improves our nation’s democracy. It shows that nonpartisan, data-based measures are possible—and essential for the good of us all.”

Carol Kaufmann is a staff writer for Trust.