In Good Company: Surveying the Landscape of Election Technology Projects
An Interview with The Pew Charitable Trusts' Jared Marcotte
OE: You come to civic infrastructure work via previous experience in corporate technology. Can you give me a little background on the Voting Information Project, how you became involved with it, and why this work is so interesting to you?
JM: Voting Information Project (VIP) is a partnership between The Pew Charitable Trusts and Google that started in 2008. Both organizations realized that voters were having difficulty finding the answers to common elections-related questions, such as "where do I vote," "what's on my ballot," and "how do I navigate the elections process". The project encourages states to publish public information pertaining to elections--geopolitical boundaries, polling locations and early voting sites, local and state election official contact information, ballot information, and other related data--in a standardized format allowing Google to make the data available through the Google Civic Information API. Our goal is to lower the barrier of access to this information, making it easier for elections officials to concentrate on running the elections.
I've worked at some great companies over the years, but my work, though challenging and interesting, felt a bit disconnected. I wanted to do more to potentially solve societal problems, which led me to VIP. I'd always found elections cerebral but daunting, since it was difficult to find the information I needed to cast an informed vote. Voting is one of the most important activities in civic life, so this project fulfilled my desire to "improve the world," so to speak. Early last year, David Becker, Director of Elections Initiatives, offered me the opportunity to manage VIP at Pew. Considering how much I loved the project, it was easy to say yes.
OE: VIP is a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and Google’s Civic Innovation project. How does this work, and what resources do each entity bring to the table?
JM: Since providing election information is a distributed data problem–meaning the data we require is held in different databases across departments and, sometimes, jurisdictions–Pew, through Democracy Works and Election Information Services, provides engineering support to states to automate and centralize the publication of this information at the state-level. Pew also creates open source tools that leverage the API and allow states, campaigns, and civic organizations to use low-cost tools. Pew works with Engage and Lewis PR to broaden the project's reach to potential organizations that may be interested in leveraging the data or the tools.
Pew has a great working relationship with Google. They offer an understanding of elections coupled with technical infrastructure and engineering that few others could match at scale. Additionally, they created the Voter Information Tool, which provides a single source of election information to voters and is one of the most visible artifacts of the project. Anthea Watson Strong, my counterpart at Google, has extensive experience with the project and campaigns, making her uniquely suited to manage Google's role with this initiative.
OE: Can you describe how VIP impacts an individual voter, and how it eases their participation in the elections process?
JM: Though there are numerous tools, at its core, VIP allows a voter to enter their address and find their polling location and ballot information for every major election without ever providing any personally identifiable data. At Pew, we try to cover a number of different access points beyond Google’s Voter Information Tool. We're working with Azavea to develop a white-label, accessible iOS application and a companion Android application that allows users to find election information. In the interest of bridging the digital divide, we're also developing an SMS-based service to look up polling location information and registration status. Because the Civic Information API is accessible to the general public, civic organizations and individual developers can use the data in ways that we may not cover through our own open-source applications.
VIP also publishes all of the raw data, which tech collaborators use in various ways. One of the most fun examples was when Foursquare used the geographical polling location data in their application. A voter that checked-in to his/her polling location on Election Day received a virtual "I Voted" badge.
OE: What other Election initiatives are underway at Pew, and how do they all interrelate?
JM: Our core mission in election initiatives is to make elections more accessible, accurate, and cost-efficient. In addition to VIP, we have two other projects that work towards our goals.
The Upgrading Voter Registration (UVR) project partners with election officials, policy makers, technology experts, and other stakeholders to help states move towards more integrated, modern, and secure voter registration systems. This goal is accomplished through a number of initiatives, one of which is the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), an independent non-profit whose membership is made up of representatives of the states that work to improve the quality of voter registration lists through a sophisticated data matching system.
Pew's ethos is all about constant evaluation through data analysis. In keeping with the culture, the Elections Performance Index (EPI) is our measurement of elections administration based on 17 objective indicators (e.g. data completeness, turnout, voter registration rate, et al). Along with a massive amount of fascinating data and state fact sheets (e.g. Wisconsin [PDF]), the "crown jewel" of this project is the interactive. This year is also the first time that we've had the data to compare two presidential elections: 2008 and 2012.
OE: In light of the recent presidential report highlighting that current voting systems are at the end of their viable lifespan, are you aware of any new solutions underway?
JM: Innovation in voting technology is complicated by outdated certification requirements. Since the last time the federal standards were updated, smartphones became ubiquitous, and Apple, with the advent of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, changed the way we think about the capabilities of "mobile users." Most states have state-specific certification standards, too, many of which are based closely on the federal standards. The result is an expensive and lengthy process to certify new voting technology that prevents entrepreneurs from developing new systems and limits the products available on the market. Vendors are unwilling to invest in innovative technology when there is no guarantee that there will be a market for their technology once it is certified.
Election officials are left treading water with outdated and insecure technology while waiting for new technology to be offered, knowing that the current system prevents innovation. While we are starting to think about creative solutions to the problems in the marketplace, two county-based projects are approaching this problem from their perspectives. The Travis County, Texas Elections Office is working with a number of academics to build STAR-Vote, a completely new election system. A similar initiative is also taking place in Los Angeles County called the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP). VSAP is guided around set of principles defined by the Advisory Committee and the county is working with IDEO to create early prototypes (NB: In the interest of full-disclosure, I serve on the VSAP Technical Advisory Committee).
OE: Ideally, what kinds of organizations and systems would come together to make a robust, transparent and cost-effective elections infrastructure?
JM: VSAP is a solid start. Academics, civic organizations, the private sector, and the public all take part in the process in meaningful ways. With IDEO, they take a "human-centered" approach to the problems, which I believe makes this project transformative. Ideally, elections should be about what works for each individual voter, though this philosophy does introduce a number of unique challenges. Time will tell if initiatives like VSAP and STAR-Vote will change the elections technology landscape, but I'm optimistic.
Jared Marcotte is an officer for Pew’s election initiatives, which supports states’ efforts to improve military and overseas voting; assess election performance through better data; use technology to provide information to voters; and upgrade voter registration systems.
Marcotte primarily oversees work on the Voting Information Project, a partnership with Google that improves the availability of election information for voters and civic developers while easing administrative burdens on local election officials. He also serves as an advisor on other Election Initiatives projects where technical strategy or software engineering is a component of the work.
Previously, as a senior engineer at the New Organizing Institute, Marcotte worked on the Voting Information Project, a collaboration with state and local officials, Google, and Pew to develop a nationwide dataset of election-related information. Marcotte previously worked at Six Apart and IBM and as an interface and interaction designer on the Election Protection Coalition’s Our Vote Live, KCET.org, and various enterprise-grade sites. He currently serves on the technical advisory committee for the Voting Systems Advisory Committee for Los Angeles County, California.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Vermont.