Thursday, March 8, 2012

How new technology is helping voters, one at a time

I took a call today from a very agitated and frustrated woman who wasn't sure if she is registered to vote or not.

She told me her story, how she moved, filled out a new registration card and mailed it in to Sacramento County, didn't get anything in the mail confirming she registered, then went to the registrar's office to find out what was wrong.

They told her her card came back as "undeliverable" (even though she provided the correct address). So she filled out another card, and submitted it, and it's been two weeks and she still hasn't heard anything and doesn't know if it's fixed or not.

She's called the Secretary of State, whose staff assured her her new application would cancel out the old one that had been deemed "undeliverable". And now she was calling us.

After calming her down a bit, I told her we could check online together. I went to the Sacramento County online registration lookup tool (one of 25 of 58 the California Voter Foundation links to on our County Election Office directory page).

I asked her her street number, zip code and birthdate and entered them into the online form. A message was returned that I read to her over the phone confirming a matching voter registration record was found. She breathed a sigh of relief and blessed me.

As this map shows, whether voters have access to online voter registration lookup tools depends on the county, and largely the region where voters reside. Voters in larger, coastal counties have access while voters in smaller, rural counties mostly do not.

Voters without online access (all the counties in grey) must contact their elections office in person or over the phone to during business hours to check their registration status or get answers to their registration questions.

Unfortunately due to delays in implementing a new statewide voter registration system, lookup tool access will not be available to voters statewide until 2015 at the earliest.

It is incredible that in a state as technologically advanced as California we can't make this simple technology available for everyone.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why Super Tuesday is not equally super for all voters

Today is Super Tuesday, when voters in ten U.S. states get to weigh in on the Republican Presidential primary. 

But how voters vote, when they must register, whether they must show and ID at the polls, and how their votes will get counted toward the Presidential primary contest varies from state to state.

Across the country voters also have uneven access to online tools that can help them find their polling place, verify their registration status, and view their sample ballot before voting, all enormously powerful resources that help busy people make informed, confident choices.

Last year a Mellman Group poll of voters found that:
  • A majority (57 percent) said they looked up what was on their ballot before voting most recently;
  • Almost half (45 percent) sought out where to vote and voting hours (44 percent); and
  • About a third (30 percent) verified that they were officially registered, while 29 percent looked up rules regarding photo ID requirements.
Whether voters can access the resources and tools they need to vote varies widely from state to state, according to a nationwide assessment of state election web sites conducted in 2010 for the Pew Center on the States.  A quick review of the ten “Super Tuesday” states’ election web sites demonstrates this unequal access to voter tools. 

Here’s a rundown:
  • Voters in six of the Super Tuesday states  - Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia can verify their registration status and address on their states’ election web site, while voters in Massachusetts, Vermont and Oklahoma cannot.
  • Voters in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, North Dakota, and Virginia can use the Internet to check whether an absentee ballot has been received, while voters in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee and Vermont cannot.
  • Voters in Georgia, North Dakota and Virginia can use the state’s web site to access a personalized sample ballot showing the contests that will be appear on a specific voter’s ballot. 
  • Voters in all ten of the Super Tuesday states can use the state’s web site to locate their polling place. Access to polling place lookup tools is now near-universal, with 49 states providing this service to voters.
The increasing use of the Internet and lookup tools to help voters prepare for elections is a welcome trend, but not without its pitfalls. In some states, profiles of registered voters can be accessed using personal information easily found online. 

Georgia’s site, for example, requires a user to enter the initial of their first name, last name, county, and birth date. The return screen displays that voter’s registration status, along with his or her full name, full street address, gender, race, registration date and absentee ballot status. 

The 2011 “Being Online is Still Not Enough” study shows there is much room for improvement, particularly in my own state, California, which is one of only two states (the other being Vermont) whose election web sites currently offer none of the key voter lookup tools. 

Hopefully by this Fall more states will provide more online services to voters and also tighten up security and privacy practices involving voter data. 

In the meantime, voters in North Dakota and Virginia might feel grateful today for living in two of the ten states that provide all of the relevant lookup tools the state web site project assessed, tools that give those states' voters access to the modern conveniences that make voting feel less like a chore and more like a meaningful exercise.