Digital Voting Startup Brings Elections Into the Internet Age
Harvard University students sign up for TurboVote, which will help them get mail-in ballots and election reminders.
CREDIT: Harvard University
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The United States is No. 138 in the world at getting its citizens to turn out to vote, according to a 2002 report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. That's a statistic Seth Flaxman often mentions when he talks about his new startup here, TurboVote. He and his team hope to improve those numbers by making it as easy as possible to vote, especially for young people who are accustomed to shopping, banking, renting movies and taking out thousands of dollars' worth of student loans over the Internet. TurboVote has signed up about 1,000 users so far, according to co-founder Kathryn Peters.
The nonprofit startup runs a one-stop website that works with the mail-in, vote-from-home ballot system that's already in place in all U.S. states. Before TurboVote, people often had to go to several sites to find information about upcoming state and local elections, how to register to vote and how to vote from home. The United States has 3,810 local voting authorities, Peters found. "'How do I make sure I'm registered and vote absentee?' is not always one-stop. Often it's not," she said. When building the database for TurboVote, Peters and her colleagues had to search several voting information websites, pay for access to files sometimes, and call "a lot of election offices, one by one."
Voters who sign up through TurboVote's partners — for now, Harvard University and Boston University — get the correct registration applications mailed to them, already filled out, along with an addressed, stamped envelope. The users just need to sign, seal and mail the application. People who aren't associated with TurboVote's partners can sign up at TurboVote.org and generate forms they'll need to print and mail.
Then their local voting authority will start mailing them ballots. If they choose, they can have TurboVote remind them of upcoming elections by email or text message. That service may be especially helpful for smaller, local votes, such as school board elections, which aren't as well-publicized, Peters said. If voters move, they can change their address at Turbovote.org. "There's no worry," Peters said. "It's always, 'This is the next step, this is the next step.'" TurboVote may be as close as the U.S. can get to signing up and voting online.
Flaxman came up with the idea for TurboVote when he realized he had missed three local elections in his hometown of Nyack, N.Y., while at graduate school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The team launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2010 to get initial funding for the project and pitched the idea at conferences such as the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum and 2012's South by Southwest festival. This January, they earned funding from the Knight Foundation, with which they're bringing TurboVote to Miami Dade College, Florida International University and the University of Miami.
The funding also let them set up an office in downtown Brooklyn. The space has the high-tech/low-tech feel of many college dorm rooms, where cash-strapped students may have privileged access to technology, but cut corners in other parts of their lives: Everyone is wedged into one cubicle, but they have up-to-date laptops and use an iPad to video chat with a Colorado-based developer.
For now, because of its partnerships, TurboVote will probably sign up mostly college students. The service may make be less accessible to voters who don't have home Internet access, which includes 27 percent of Brooklyn residents, according to Brooklyn College. To combat this, TurboVote has met with voter-registration groups Voto Latino and League of Young Voters, whose staff members can carry tablets to sign up voters for TurboVote. Once signed up, TurboVoters can receive text message reminders and mail-in ballots without using a computer. The development team is beta-testing a tablet application, Peters said.
TurboVote is not the only organization working to bring voting in the U.S. into the digital age. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign released an application that lets people register to vote on their mobile devices. Advocacy group "Why Tuesday" has long worked to change Election Day, historically held on a Tuesday because that was most convenient for pioneer farmers, to a weekend. A voting process that better aligns with modern life should help citizens focus on the issues they're voting on, Peters thinks. "People can really get concerned with the issues," she said, "and not have, 'Where do I vote? When do I vote? How do I vote?' be the things they're spending all their mental energies on."
Corrected Mar. 19: The previous version of this story described co-founder Kathryn Peters’ future plans for reaching people who don’t have home Internet access. This correction added more detail for partnerships TurboVote has already established with Voto Latino and League of Young Voters.