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electionlineWeekly--April 14, 2011

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

Voters’ guides go digital…sometimes
Most jurisdictions still send out paper guides in addition to online guides

By Elyse Berkowitz

Across the nation, elections offices are moving further and further away from a paper society and allowing residents to do everything electronically, whether it’s registering to vote, requesting an absentee ballot, or in some recent experiments, even voting online. One stronghold remains though: the printed and mailed voters’ guide.

Moving to online-only voter guides is seen by many as the obvious response to budget cuts for an electorate living with 21st century technologies. Printed voter guides are a tradition that voters across the nation have come to expect in the weeks leading up to an election, yet they are costly to compile, print, and mail, and their information is often duplicated online at lower costs.

A recent case study in California by the Pew Center on the States’ found that “by disseminating voter information through e-mail or the Web, counties could save up to nine percent of their election expenses if a portion of their voters agreed to cancel paper mailings.” While cost savings depend on the number of voters who opt out, research estimates that counties in California could cut back up to 9 percent of their election expenses if a portion of voters agreed to cancel paper mailings.

Election offices are one provider of voter guides in a sea of nongovernmental organizations that provide voter guides online, through civic groups and mailings. Most prominent amongst this group are the League of Women Voters, Project Vote Smart, the Voter Guide,eVoter and Imagine Election. These groups, in addition to dozens of others, provide supplements to official information from election offices.

“The League covers everything in an election, but chapters have to pick and choose when to cover,” said the League of Women Voters’ director of elections and e-democracy, Jeannette Senecal, explaining that voter guides length and coverage are determined by the amount of funds raised by local chapters.

Senecal pointed out that civic organizations don’t have the capacity and resources to make up the difference when election offices are unable to mail printed voter guides to registered voters.

Even as jurisdictions rely more and more on electronic transactions in their elections offices, voters’ guides seem to remain a bastion of paper and ink.

“We have a long way to go,” Summer Nemeth, founder of Imagine Election, admitted, “but only a couple of states provide good online voter guides,” doing a disservice to the increasing numbers of voters who prefer to get their information online.

Nemeth argues that voter guides produced through public-private partnerships between election offices, nonprofits and for-profits are the future of online and printed voting information. Nemeth plans to expand her site to “bring social knowledge to the voter guide space” by adding a user review component similar to Yelp to help voters learn about candidates through peer reviews.

In practice, election officials are attempting to strike a balance.

“We send the voters pamphlet to every household in the state with a registered voter, but costs are kept down because mailings are not personalized,” said Steve Trout, director of elections of Oregon State, a state where nearly all election manuals are online only publications.

Depending on budgets and cost in the future, Trout would consider an opt out option for mailed guides and hopes to offer customized functionality online with personal polling place location and candidate information.

Just how useful a voters’ guide is--online or printed--seems to vary. Johnson County, Kan. has never produced a voters’ guide for residents. Instead the county relies on sending a postcard to each registered voter remind them of the upcoming election and relying on GOTV efforts at grocery stores, the library, and popular local venues in addition to sending text message alerts with election information prior to an election.

“Once you do it, you must do it again,” said Brian Newby, elections commissioner

At least one voting rights advocate had a bad initial reaction to this shift in trend of how voter guides are provided.

“We can’t assume that all voters have access to online information,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law’s Voting Rights Project. Johnson-Blanco argued that “it is comforting to voters to have something in hand when they go to the polls,” and that printed voter guides “help voters feel confident at the polling place.”

Sometimes a jurisdiction’s move to online-only voting guides is a necessity. The District of Columbia will conduct a city-wide special election on April 26 and due to severe budget constraints, the city will not be sending out a voters’ guide.

“D.C. has mailed voter guides to registered voters for each election since HAVA was signed into law in 2002,” explained D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics (DCBOEE) Executive Director Rokey Suleman. “Voter guides are often the only means of contact between us and voters prior to an election and require minimal effort from voters.”

Instead the District has put their guide online and will send a postcard to every individual registered voter to notify them of the upcoming election.