Making Government Work

The Simple Fix That May Change How We Vote Forever

December 13, 2013
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The Simple Fix That May Change How We Vote Forever
Voters wait outside the Metropolitan AME Church polling station to cast their ballots in Washington, D.C. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
Seth Flaxman was a politically motivated college kid who was passionate about voting. So why did he keep missing Election Day? His answer aims to make casting a ballot as easy as renting a DVD.

The United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world. And it’s even worse for young voters: Just 41 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds cast ballots in 2012, according to a U.S. Census report—a phenomenon often taken as a sign of apathy. But what if there’s something else that’s at least partly responsible? If we’re being honest, voting is harder than it should be.

At a time when you can buy almost anything you want with a single click and have it delivered to your house the next day, voting stands out as a transaction from another era. If you are a first-time voter or have recently moved, you have to request a registration form, fill it out and mail it to your election office, all a month before the election. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with lenient absentee balloting rules, you can vote by mail, but that still means another form, another envelope, another deadline to remember (two, actually: one to request your ballot and another to mail it in time). If you’re voting in person, you have to find your polling station and go there, on a Tuesday no less. It is, in short, an enormous pain.

Seth Flaxman noticed just how cumbersome the voting process could be when he was studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and realized he’d missed several local elections. Flaxman doesn’t fit the stereotype of a disengaged young voter: A former Columbia University student body president who’d always been “obsessed with, fascinated by elections,” he was studying for a master’s in public policy. “I’m not an apathetic person, so if I’m missing elections there must be a problem with the process,” he says.

After he realized he’d missed a local vote, he went online, searching for balloting information and ways to register, and came up empty. “When you want to do almost anything, the first step is to go online—except for anything to do with voting,” he says. “The problem is that voting doesn’t fit the way we live anymore.”

He approached his classmate Kathryn Peters and asked her how hard it would be to make a site that could streamline the registration process and remind voters when deadlines were coming up. A lot of “blood, sweat, and screen-scraping” later, the result was TurboVote, a nonprofit that Flaxman calls the “Netflix of voting.”

When you sign up, TurboVote helps you fill out your voter registration and mails you the paperwork to sign, along with a pre-stamped envelope addressed to your local election office. The site then checks your local election calendar and sends you email and text reminders when mailing deadlines are coming up. If you’ve requested an absentee ballot, it reminds you when you have to mail it in. If you’re voting in person, TurboVote tells you where your polling station is.

The end result may be simple, but getting there wasn’t. Flaxman and Peters had to find information on more than 7,000 jurisdictions, each with its own deadlines, forms and rules. In 2012 they hired a full-time researcher, and they’re in the process of hiring another.

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More than 200,000 people are now registered for the site, many of them students at the 68 colleges and universities that have partnered with TurboVote. Of the people who registered to vote for the first time last year through the site, 75 percent turned out for the presidential election, while 80 percent of those who used the site to update their registration cast a ballot.

TurboVote has been focusing on colleges, partnering with schools to provide free mailing to students, many of whom are first-time voters and need to register at their new on-campus addresses. (If you’re not part of a partner institution, it costs $1.60 per form.)

Renee Bricker, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia, helped her school sign up shortly before the 2012 election. “It was a good opportunity to offer a service to students who are often disenfranchised from political participation,” she says, explaining that requesting absentee ballots can be so cumbersome and far from undergrads’ minds that students at residential colleges often forget. “That’s a huge amount of electorate that’s disenfranchised at a time when we’re trying to encourage younger people to be involved in democracy.”

University of North Georgia IT people worked with TurboVote’s staff to create a popup window on the school’s student portal. Whenever unregistered students log in, a window appears asking if they’d like to register and if they want deadline reminders. “It’s really simple and they don’t even have to think about it,” she says.

The reviews from students so far have been positive as well. “I do see tremendous value in institutionalizing voter engagement on our campuses,” wrote Anjelica Smith, vice president of the student body at Virginia Tech, in an op-ed published in The Roanoke Times in October 2013, just weeks before Virginians headed to the polls to elect a new governor. “Students regularly interact with bottleneck processes, such as an orientation program and class registration. Why not give the students the option to register to vote as well? I’m thankful our students have access to a resource like TurboVote that brings voting to the 21st century.”

TurboVote is beginning to work with the federal government as well. “If we want to make voting better for every American, we have to provide our technology to local government, the frontline workers for election services,” says Flaxman. They’re also experimenting with a prototype service that lets voters and election officials track absentee ballots in the mail, the way the postal service tracks packages, so that it’s no longer a “black box” for both parties. “We want it to be the standard way everyone experiences voting without needing to go to a special website.”

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