By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Only about 36 percent of the voting population turned out for the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest turnout election since 1942, according to stats from the United States Election Project.
That’s a big problem and a group of experts in technology, journalism, civics and elections met at the Belo Center for New Media at the University of Texas at Austin campus last week to discuss how to get more people civically engaged. They participated in an invitation-only daylong conference hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life focused on increasing civic engagement before, during and after elections.
The conference featured speakers from Google, Microsoft, Code for America, Rock the Vote, Vox Media, Texas Tribune, the clerk of Travis County and many more.
Lots of information and tools to encourage voters already exist online. Tammy Patrick, senior advisor with the Presidential Commission on Election Reform, a bipartisan policy center, produced a report with recommendations to increase voter turnout at SupporttheVoter.gov. Patrick participated in a panel on how can election officials and nonprofits better inform and engage the public.
Another panelist, Ashley Spillane, president of Rock the Vote, is often asked “Why can’t I vote on my phone?” Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, works to encourage young people to register to vote and vote.
People can file their taxes securely online and they think they should be able to cast their ballot that way too, Spillane said.
Today, the technology and security are still not up to par on the Internet to create systems in the United States that allow people to vote online, according to VerifiedVoting.org.
But there are lots of people working to make voting easier and better for everyone.
To encourage people to be more civically engaged and to vote is one of the latest challenges the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation took on. On Wednesday morning, the foundation announced the winners of its Knight News Challenge on Elections. The foundation received more than 1,000 submissions and awarded $3.2 million to 22 winners.
“Ten of the winners will receive investments ranging from $200,000 to $525,000 each, while 12 early stage ideas will receive $35,000 each through the Knight Prototype Fund,” according to the Knight Foundation.
Among the winners, Vote by Smartphone by Long Distance Voter received $325,000 to make it easier for people to vote by absentee ballot by using their smartphone to sign up for an absentee ballot.
“There are two things I really love in the world. I really love technology and I really love Democracy. I especially love using technology to reduce barriers to voting so that more people can participate in Democracy,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of Long Distance Voter, a nonprofit tech startup.
Voting absentee is a pretty difficult process, Cleaver said. In 2008, with $5,000 Cleaver and group of four friends launched the Longdistancevoter.org website to teach people how to vote by absentee ballot and to make it easier. They got half a million visitors within six months, Cleaver said.
Today, the site has had 3.5 million visitors, Cleaver said. By the end of 2014, the site had helped more than 600,000 people sign up to vote by absentee voters, she said.
A study by the Pew Research Center showed that in 2014, 70 percent of the people who didn’t vote reported they didn’t vote because they didn’t have time to get to the polls, Cleaver said.
“Which is a problem that you can solve entirely by signing everyone up to vote by absentee ballot, which happens to be what we do,” Cleaver said.
They decided to build an application that lets you sign up for absentee ballot using your smartphone. They partnered with DocuSign to use their technology to allow people to sign their absentee ballot application by taking a picture on their smartphone. Then they partnered with another company to handle the printing and mailing of the applications.
Vote by Smartphone has enough funding to run a pilot in two states, Cleaver said. It is seeking additional funding to expand the pilot to ten states, she said. And its ultimate goal is to have the technology in all 50 states by 2020 so any registered voter who wants to vote by absentee ballot can sign up just using their phone.
Another Knight Challenge winner, the Internet Archive plans to use its $200,000 grant to hire a new staff member to help create its project, the 2016 Political Ad Tracker, said Tracey Jaquith with the Internet Archive. The project seeks to establish a searchable database of political ads from 2016 primary election states for voters to check for accuracy. The project will partner with PolitiFact, the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.org, the Center for Public Integrity and others.
David Pace with the Associated Press presented the AP’s project “The Next Generation Beyond Exit Polls,” which received a $250,000 grant to capture more accurate polling results around elections. It will do a series of experiments in the fall elections and next year to come up with a new methodology that will build on the legacy of the exit poll, Pace said.
The largest grant for $525,000 went to a project titled “Inside the 990 Treasure Trove” by the Center for Responsive Politics and Guidestar. The project seeks to better inform the public about who is funding campaigns through a partnership with Guidestar to reveal the sources of so-called “dark money.
Not all of the ideas were high tech.Sharp Insight plans to use its $250,000 grant to train 50 barbers in 25 barbershops to be disseminators of nonpartisan information to help their clientele understand the importance of voting and being involved civically, said Duerward Beale, the project’s leader in Philadelphia.
“We think we can reach 6,000 men in barbershops directly,” Beale said.