Online Voting Tools Used More Than Ever in 2016

  • March 20, 2017
  • by Carol Kaufmann

If you were on Facebook in the weeks leading up to last Election Day, you would have seen a box inviting you to “Find out how to get to your polling place.” On the Firefox browser’s home page, you were invited to click on “Find your local polling place.” On LinkedIn, the message was direct: “See where to vote.”

Without having to try, millions of online Americans were offered the opportunity to find ballot information and where to vote, whether they were checking in on Foursquare or looking for a forecast on Weather Underground. The easily discoverable treasure-trove was also available on Etsy, Univision, Instagram, AOL, AT&T, Twitter, MTV, and many other sites. If you had a smartphone, you could text “vote” to GOVOTE (and Spanish speakers could type “voto”) and get election details on a smaller screen.

In short, voting information last fall was available to more people than in any previous U.S. election thanks to high-tech companies and their “Get to the Polls” effort. And that was also the goal of the Voting Information Project (VIP). The partnership Pew created with state election officials, Google, and other technology experts collected state election data, confirmed its accuracy, and made it widely available online. In addition to the big social media sites, state election websites used the data free of charge for voters who looked there.

Online voting tools

The project began in 2008, after Pew and Google recognized that they could create the technological infrastructure to support a standardized, reliable, nationwide source for basic information about where and when to vote, and what was on the ballot—something that didn’t exist. Since then, a number of funding partners have joined Pew’s VIP effort, including the Rita Allen Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the State Infrastructure Fund at NEO Philanthropy, and the Open Society Foundations. “When Pew launched VIP, our dream was that someday Americans everywhere would be able to use everyday technology to answer their questions about voting,” 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. In 2016, that dream was realized.”

Right from the start, VIP reached large numbers of people. Two years after the project’s launch came the 2010 national midterm elections, and the project’s data was accessed 10 million times. Two years later, during the presidential election, the number climbed to more than 25 million. In the 2014 midterm elections, VIP information was accessed 32 million times. Four years later, before most polls opened on Election Day last fall, more voters had tapped into VIP resources than ever before. By the time voting ended, the tools had been used more than 123 million times.

State election officials and administrators chose to use the free tools in a variety of ways. “In the runup to the presidential general election, Pew’s polling place lookup information proved indispensable,” says California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “Recognizing the value of the information in a state the size of California, we developed a smartphone app that bundled voter status lookup, voter registration, a quick guide to the 17 propositions [on the California ballot], and the polling place lookup tool. We also made the information available on our website and via text message. These features improved the election by empowering voters with quick and easy access to these tools.” California’s voter hotline had fewer calls on Election Day than in previous balloting because voters could directly access the information they needed, Padilla says.

“We often joked in the runup to Election Day that our motto should be ‘Ubiquitas victoria est’—Ubiquity is victory—and it’s safe to say we made it happen in 2016,” says Chapin. “That accomplishment—and VIP’s success in putting 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.”

Online voting tools

Mobile apps from Twitter and Facebook used VIP information to help Americans learn ballot information, register to vote, and find polling locations on and before Election Day 2016.

Pew has long been dedicated to preserving the foundations of democracy, and its work to improve elections began 15 years ago, well before VIP, with research into how the states administered the election process.

One Pew analysis revealed that 25 states and the District of Columbia did not provide enough time for military voters to cast a ballot and found that states had inconsistent processes and requirements for American voters who lived overseas. Tracking and highlighting these issues got the attention of Congress and led to the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, as well as related legislation in 11 states with the highest number of military voters. The laws removed voting obstacles for American military personnel and citizens overseas, allowing more time to cast a ballot and eliminating the notarization or witness requirements.

Another Pew analysis showed that voter registration applications received electronically tend to be more accurate and cost less to process. Yet in 2008, only two states offered online voter registration. In 2009, Pew began working with state election officials to document and disseminate information on how online voter registration can streamline the election process, better maintain voter records, and reduce administrative costs. The improvements worked: By 2016, eligible citizens in 32 states and the District of Columbia could go online to securely and accurately register or update their voter records. Seven more states are implementing such systems.

Election research also showed that more than 1 in 8 voter registration records was out of date: Nearly 3 million deceased people were still on the rolls, and millions of eligible voters were not registered.

To help, election officials in seven states agreed to contribute to a sophisticated data-matching experiment called the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. The center compares participating states’ voter and motor vehicle records, as well as data from the U.S. Postal Service and death records from the Social Security Administration. These data sets allow participating states to identify voters who moved, died, or have duplicate registrations, and those who may be eligible to vote but are not registered. The states were able to update their rolls and provide information to eligible voters about how to register in time to cast a ballot. Not only did ERIC help Americans register, it also saved the states money and improved voter turnout.

“The American public is mobile, and ERIC is the tool to help Americans keep pace with the mobility of the voting public,” says John Lindback, part of the team that created ERIC at Pew and its current executive director. “Reform does not happen overnight. We started small, with a few pioneers. But ERIC has definitely picked up steam as the snowball rolled down the hill.”

Online voting tools

Today, 20 states plus the District, representing more than 75 million eligible voters, are part of ERIC, which is now independent of Pew and funded by member states. Since the 2012 presidential election, its members have identified a large number of voter records that are likely to require an update or cancellation, including more than 5 million voters who have moved but haven’t updated their records, more than 75,000 duplicate records, and more than 160,000 deceased individuals still on the rolls. In addition, the states were able to inform some 25 million eligible but unregistered Americans about how to register to vote efficiently and securely.

“I thought our voter rolls were clean,” says Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state. “ERIC showed me that there is always room for improvement.” In 2016, Washington had 399,186 updates to voter rolls, reached 1.8 million citizens over the course of five mailings, and had about 123,000 new registrants—significant milestones for a state already known for trying to make it easier for citizens to vote, including with voting by mail.

Pew’s initial voting research also examined how administrators ran elections. It showed that they usually operated with a focus on their own states, rarely sharing information or strategies with colleagues in others. In addition, policymakers on both sides of the aisle accused each other of changing election rules to benefit their own parties rather than focusing on improving the experience for voters. The system was also costly for taxpayers.

For an election system to be convenient, accurate, and fair, election administrators need data to review and track their voting processes, from registration to ballot counting. “Because of the nature of elections, the administrators were so focused on getting the winner right that not a lot of energy went into using the data that was available to them in other ways,” says Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

No common set of performance measures existed to compare how well states were doing on the basics of election administration. To help local and state officials combat these challenges, Pew helped create the Election Performance Index (EPI).

The EPI uses 17 indicators that measure, among other things, wait time at polls; voter turnout; registration rates; return and rejection rates of absentee, military, and overseas ballots; and the availability of online voter registration and voting information. Taken as a whole, those indicators show just how secure and convenient voting is for the public. Election administrators can measure how well they’re performing—in comparison to each other and over time. What the indicators show is that state election officials are steadily getting better at their jobs. “We’ve been able to document an improvement in election administration across the board since 2008 coming up to 2014,” says Stewart, who helped Pew develop the EPI. “At every iteration, we’ve been able to document the successes as well as some of the challenges.” Stewart also predicts that the data, when it’s available, will reveal further improvements in how the states ran the 2016 presidential election.

Even knowing that a state hasn’t performed well in certain aspects of election administration has proved useful to those who run them. “We have stories of states feeding back to us how actually residing down in the lower levels of the EPI has been useful in communicating with state officials, especially state legislatures, about the need to get more resources, to get more administrative changes, in order to increase the standing” compared with other states, says Stewart.

VIP has increased the availability of election information to voters and made that information easy to find. ERIC has modernized registration for those who manage and count ballots—and those who cast them. And the EPI has amassed data generated by the elections themselves to provide measurable benchmarks that will continue to grow and improve.

“2008 was not that long ago,” says Michael Caudell-Feagan, Pew’s vice president overseeing election research, “but so much has changed to help citizens participate in their democracy.”