Voting Goes Mobile: State Initiatives in the 2012 Election Cycle

With more and more people relying on smartphones and tablet computers to conduct their everyday business, mobility is rapidly becoming a must-have capability for state government agencies, including election offices. State efforts to transform and modernize voting through mobile technology took center stage during the 2012 presidential election cycle, with the introduction of new smartphone apps, tablet voting programs and emergency texting options for voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy. This article outlines some of the key state mobile initiatives for the 2012 election cycle, along with some potential options that may enhance the voting experience in the future.
 

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About the Author

Kay Stimson is director of communications and special projects for the National Association of Secretaries of State in Washington, D.C. A former television news reporter who covered the state legislatures in Maryland and South Carolina, she often focuses on writing about state and federal policy issues for lawmakers.


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. Plus, many officials believe these tools are just the beginning of something much larger: Mobile technology is slowly changing the way Americans vote.
 
The New Normal
Mobility is rapidly becoming a must-have capability for election offices, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State, which surveyed state election offices on their voter outreach programming for the 2012 general election. According to NASS findings, more than half of all states devoted significant time and resources to ensuring their election websites were optimized for smart- phone 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,” noted Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, who is president of NASS. “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 other states that introduced this service statewide in 2012; those states include California, Maryland, New York and South Carolina.
 
In total, 13 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. 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—was used by more than 220,000 people in its first two weeks of operation, according to the California Secretary of State’s office. 
 
In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler estimated that nearly 20 percent of the approximately 229,000 submissions and updates to existing voter registrations his office received between Aug. 31 and Oct. 9, 2012, came from mobile devices.1 In discussing the state’s new system, he pointed to benefits for election administrators and voters alike. 
 
“This is another tool to make voting easier and improve the integrity of our voter rolls,” Gessler said in an office news release. “Colorado voters can quickly and conveniently update their information to make sure it’s 100 percent accurate leading up to Election Day.”
 
In Oregon, officials took the concept of mobility one step further, becoming the first state in the nation 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, particularly in comparison to the costs of storing and updating regular voting machines. 
 
“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.”
 
One of the program’s key features is its ability to encourage autonomous voting. Text can be enlarged with just a tap of the screen, or the ballot can be read aloud at the click of a button. Voters who cannot hold a pen can instead use their finger to fill out a ballot, and those who cannot use their hands have the option of using a tube or hooking up to their own joystick or paddle. The program has been so popular, other states such as Colorado and Washington already have followed suit in setting up their own assistive voting programs using tablets.
 
There’s an App for That
Apps available for download to mobile devices were another popular election year tool. More than a dozen states—including Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota and Texas—had one available, or in development, for the 2012 general election, according to NASS. These states joined Indiana, Louisiana and Washington, which already have apps available for voters. 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. Users in some states also can get real-time election results using their smart-phone, or even track their absentee ballot once it’s mailed.
 
 
“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 smart-phones 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.”
 
Meanwhile, more than one election app turned out to be a critical tool during the election cycle. In Louisiana, the state’s “GeauxVote” app saw huge amounts of traffic during the state’s March 24 primary election, largely due to redistricting efforts that changed many voting locations. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, election commissioners and political campaigns relied on the program to help residents find their proper polling place, reducing confusion and cutting down on the potential backlog of calls and emails to local clerks’ offices. In Alabama, a custom software app developed at the behest of county officials helped election workers utilize iPads to guide voters to their proper polling places. As a result, officials say they streamlined the voting process and reduced the number of help calls that were placed to election offices.2
 
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. In fact, the Texas “SmartTXVoter” app, launched in October 2012, was designed with social networking in mind. Aside from accessing personal voting information, users can set reminders for key election dates and sign up friends and family members to receive voting reminders. Weekly polls leading up to the November 2012 election encouraged Texans to use the app to vote on lighter topics, such as “What Texas town has the best barbecue?” Plus, all information could be viewed in English or Spanish, and it was formatted to be accessible for those with visual impairments.
 
One state even directly extended its voter outreach in 2012 through the power of Facebook friends. The office of the Washington Secretary of State allowed 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, and while election officials work hard all year, every year, their efforts tend to get the most attention during major election cycles, when there is higher turnout and more demand for voting assistance,” noted 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. The outreach that was conducted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy really highlighted some of this new potential.”
 
A Hurricane of Innovation
The power of mobile technology was amplified in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, leaving behind a number of storm-ravaged states just days before the presidential election. With little time to regroup, and with many voters left without power or even shelter, election officials in New York and New Jersey used a text message polling place locator provided pro bono to the states.
 
Using data provided by the Voter Information Project and Google, voters were able to type in a simple message—such as “NYCVOTES” or “WHERE”—and send it to 877877. They would receive basic prompts to help them find their polling place. Due to the interactive nature of texting, officials were able to provide continually updated information on areas that were most affected by the storm. They also were able to help voters in the event that a regular polling place was not available. In an emergency situation where cell phones were often the only practical way to reach people, the text messaging programs proved to be highly effective.
 
Despite all the advances in technology, voting is not yet an anytime, anywhere experience. One much-requested offering—online voting—was not available in 2012. Most state election officials say it is still too risky for widespread adoption now, although some states have piloted such activities to help enfranchise military and overseas voters. Security is a top challenge for states that want to explore this option, along with other privacy, legal, financial and operational issues—and to some degree, all new tech-friendly offerings bring these challenges. Election offices often need to establish social media usage policies and other practical plans before they can fully implement mobile and online practices.
 
Technical glitches are another issue, requiring states to put their apps and Web-based systems through heavy testing before going live during a high turnout presidential election year. In a few cases, such vetting and planning didn’t always help in 2012, when voters overwhelmed new mobile voter lookup tools and online voter registration systems right before major deadlines. In Nevada, Miller and his team in the secretary of state’s office dubbed this phenomenon “regageddon” and urged the public to register early before the Oct. 6 deadline to avoid crashing the system.
 
Challenges aside, mobile services are clearly here to stay. Since they are improving the lives of citizens and saving the government money at a time when states are facing some of the biggest revenue challenges in decades, it should come as no surprise that election offices across the nation have begun to embrace this technological trend. In many cases, officials say these new tools and programs are paying for themselves by increasing the efficiency of voter outreach, shortening government response time to voters, enhancing access to information, decreasing equipment costs and reducing employee workloads. From online registration to ballot marking programs, voters had more options and flexibility than ever before during the 2012 election cycle.
 
So, what’s next for mobile services and voting? Some secretaries of state have suggested that states may start moving toward software-driven voting technologies to further expand access and reduce equipment costs. Voting on iPads and other tablet technologies, they say, may eventually lead to a BYOD—or Bring Your Own Device—model for voting.
 
“States did a nice job of leveraging mobility to enhance the voting experience in 2012,” said Reynolds of NASS. “We are not quite ready for Bring Your Own Device voting, but we may eventually get there. Who knows what the future holds?”

Notes
1. Sarah Rich, Government Technology, “Colorado First to Provide Mobile-Optimized Voter Registration Site,” November 16, 2012.
2. Todd R. Weiss, CITEWORLD, “iPads Will Help Alabama Voters in 15 Counties Get to the Right Polling Places,” November 5, 2012.
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