Giving Voters the Information They Need

  • February 01, 2013
  • by Jodi Enda

Philanthropic partnerships with Pew lead to measurable results on behalf of the public good. For the Voting Information Project, that meant serving 25 million citizens during the November election.

The 2012 presidential election was just eight days away when Hurricane Sandy destroyed homes, shops, and boardwalks, forced the evacuation of whole towns, and cut off power to millions along the East Coast. People in New York and New Jersey were struggling to put their lives back together. And now, it was time to vote.

But where? Along with so much else, the storm had ravaged polling places. States and localities rushed to set up replacements—in schools, churches, and tents outfitted with portable generators—so that residents could cast their ballots. Telling voters—many without electricity—where the new sites were was another challenge altogether.

Fortunately, thanks to its partnership with funders, Pew’s Voting Information Project was in a position to respond.

The project provides easily accessible, nonpartisan election information to voters—and ultimately served 25 million of the 90 million people who cast ballots in the November election. The effort began in 2008 when Pew’s election initiatives team found there was no standardized, reliable nationwide source for such basic information as where to find polling places. The need was significant and it was essential to find partners who were willing to join Pew and who would see the benefits of combining resources to have the greatest possible impact.

Enter the Rita Allen Foundation, the Public Interest Projects’ State Infrastructure Fund, and the Open Society Foundations. Joining their resources with Pew, they helped millions of citizens have necessary voter information more easily. “Using technology and the Internet to help voters participate is an exciting solution to a set of long-standing deficiencies,” Allison Barlow of the State Infrastructure Fund said. “We expect these partnership-based programs to thrive and become even more interactive and useful.”

It was clear to Pew and its partners that combining resources would result in the greatest impact for voters.

Working with Google, the project joined with other technology companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, and AT&T, to provide voters across the country with fundamental but not always easily obtained information. Through mobile devices and the Internet, people could insert their addresses to learn where they should vote, what would be on their ballot, and the documents to take to their polling place.

By 2010, the project was working with 19 states and the District of Columbia to provide basic voting information to about 10 million people. By the presidential election on Nov. 6, it was partnering with about 40 states to provide automated information about polling place locations, candidate names, ballot initiatives, and documentation required to vote. Even in states that did not provide automated data, the project posted polling place data and updated it manually.

Google reported that its election tool, created in conjunction with the project, was on more than 600 websites operated by news organizations, campaign committees, individual candidates, civic groups, and others. Microsoft reported that at the Election Day peak, 21,000 people were using its Polling Place Locator Tool at any given moment. About 670,000 people accessed Microsoft’s tool through Facebook, which embedded it on its U.S. Politics page.

“In this election cycle, many voters turned for assistance to the technology they rely on in their daily lives, and we are proud that the Voting Information Project supplied the tools they needed and the tools election administrators needed to help,” Elizabeth Christopherson of the Rita Allen Foundation said. “We are especially pleased that the project was instrumental in assisting the communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.”

In New York and New Jersey, nearly 200,000 people—70 percent of them in New Jersey—were able to locate their polling places through text messages by using a system provided by project partner Mobile Commons. Many more used other project tools on the Internet.

While the information was available by texting nationwide, “over half of the usage overall came from New Jersey because Governor Chris Christie worked with the media and others to get the word out,” noted David Becker, who directs Pew’s election initiatives.

He said the project helped not only voters, who discovered a fast and accurate way to get the information they needed, but also elections officials, who no longer had to field as many calls on their busiest day.

In two of the nation’s largest cities—New York and Chicago—official election websites crashed shortly before or during voting hours. But local officials were able to address the problem quickly, redirecting voters to the Voting Information Project tools or replacing their polling place locators with the project-based Google Voter Information Tool until their sites were working again.

On Election Day, the project’s work was ubiquitous. The “doodle” on Google’s home page—an image of paper ballots dropping into a ballot box—guided viewers to a tool driven by project data. The project’s Twitter account sent out 155 tweets, including many that responded to voters’ requests for information. An untold number of people, including lawyers observing polling places, accessed the data via smartphone apps built by more than 100 developers, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law and AT&T.

Building on the strong foundation laid by the partners, the project’s work continues. “The Voting Information Project would never have been created without these partnerships—they were essential to our success,” Becker said. “And even better, by the 2016 election, the project not only will be automated in even more states, it will be ready to stand on its own.”

For information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew please contact managing director Sally O'Brien at 202-540-6525, or