Learning Across State Lines
Alaskans who got a new voter registration card for the 2012 election cycle noticed something a little different this time around. The cards came with one of those funny, black barcode squares on the back.
The QR code—QR stands for quick response—could instantly take smartphone users with a free QR barcode reader to a special website, where they were able access personal information on their polling place, sample ballots, voting procedures, and early and absentee-in-person voting locations.
The simple, new feature provided tech-savvy voters with election help on demand.
State election officials say the new cards were a big hit, providing better customer service to people who could take advantage of the easy-to-access and user-friendly government application.
“Voters now spend more time than ever on their smartphones and tablet computers,” said Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who led the new voter registration card initiative. “Understanding that the most effective way to reach Alaskans—particularly younger voters—is through mobile and social networking technologies, we have taken steps to make sure that anyone can easily find out where to go vote and get up-to-date information on demand.”
Gone are the days when just putting up a website was enough. The 2012 election cycle ushered in a brand new wave of state-driven tools designed to assist busy voters who increasingly rely on smartphones and tablet computers to conduct their business with government. States launched a number of initiatives designed to leverage mobility in elections, including mobile-optimized websites, mobile tie-ins with social media and new applications—commonly referred to as apps—available for download.
This shift was highlighted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when several hard-hit Mid-Atlantic states utilized text messaging to communicate with voters just days before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
While these new uses of technology come with challenges, the benefits of mobile-enabled services—improving constituent access and decreasing costs—tend to outweigh the negatives. Many officials believe these tools are just the beginning of something much larger: Mobile technology is slowly changing the way Americans votes.
The New Normal
Mobility is rapidly becoming a must-have capability for election offices, according to a National Association of Secretaries of State survey of state election offices on voter outreach programming for the 2012 general election. The survey found more than half of all states devoted significant time and resources to ensuring their election websites were optimized for smartphone and tablet users, particularly in states that offer voting information look-up tools. These efforts typically were complemented by social media tie-ins on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“This is the new normal in elections,” said Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, 2013 NASS president. “State election officials are clamoring for mobile capabilities, not only because they are what voters want, but also because they are typically cost-effective solutions for budget-conscious state and local governments.”
Miller led a two-year initiative to streamline the registration process in Nevada by enabling voters to register online. For a cost of about $250,000, voters in all 17 Nevada counties were able to use online registration, joining California, Maryland, New York and South Carolina, which introduced this service statewide in 2012.
Thirteen states now offer online voter registration, with more soon to follow. These states say their new systems reduce administrative burdens on local clerks while realizing big gains in voter registration figures.
More than 220,000 people used California’s new system—which allows residents whose signature is already on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles to submit their voter registration form to their county elections office electronically via the Internet or a mobile device—in its first two weeks of operation, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.
In Oregon, officials took the concept of mobility one step further, becoming the first state to use mobile devices for assistive voting. After testing iPads in several pilots leading up to the state’s May 2012 presidential primary, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office launched a statewide program designed to help voters with disabilities cast their ballots. The results of deploying what are essentially mobile polling stations were so positive, the state added Android and Windows tablets to the mix for the general election.
The tablet computers replaced a much bulkier option that was difficult to use and expensive to maintain, according to Secretary of State Kate Brown.
“Election workers only need to carry a tablet computer with a Wi-Fi device and a portable printer to help voters fill out and print their ballot,” said Brown. “We are talking about a major transformation in our efforts to enfranchise Oregonians, with cost-savings for the state and expanded access to our elections.”
An App For That
Apps available for download to mobile devices were another popular election year tool. More than a dozen states had one available, or in development, for the 2012 general election, according to NASS.
Many of these offerings, such as the “IowaSOS” app launched in October 2012, are full-service tools with information on how, where and when to vote. Users typically can carry out a wide range of functions using these programs, such as registering to vote, checking registration status, finding a polling place, requesting an absentee ballot and reviewing the contents of the ballot.
“Iowa has a long and proud commitment to making voting easier and more accessible for its citizens,” said Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. “As more and more people use tablets and smartphones to interact with government, providing a mobile app was the logical way to extend that tradition and make sure voters were prepared for Election Day.”
Many of the states with apps and online services went the extra mile to promote their availability using social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Washington extended its voter outreach in 2012 through the power of Facebook by allowing residents to register to vote online through a new Facebook app called “MyVote.” The service provided a secure, convenient way to get from a Facebook profile page to the State of Washington’s Election Division online voter registration platform with a single click.
“We are seeing a lot of innovation within state elections divisions,” said NASS Executive Director Leslie Reynolds. “The good thing is, the mobile tools and strategies that emerged in 2012 are just a beginning point for forward-thinking secretary of state offices and their private sector collaborators, and they will find new ways to use them to benefit voters in the future.”