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electionlineWeekly — July 19, 2012

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I. In Focus This Week

Website serves as one-stop shopping for voters
Originally designed for students, site is available to all voters

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

We’ve all heard the story. Young man heads to Harvard, young man is inspired to create website, young man goes on to fame and fortune.

But this isn’t the story that most of you are thinking about.

This isn’t about some guy and his billions of friends. This story is about Seth Flaxman and his desire to eliminate the hurdles, real and perceived, that his peers face in their effort to cast a ballot.

While a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, Flaxman came up with the idea for TurboVote, a website that allows citizens to register to vote, request an absentee ballot and unlike some other sites, will also send text and email reminders to voters about upcoming deadlines and elections.

“I went to grad school because I was really curious as to why the Internet had revolutionized just about everything else but government services,” Flaxman said.

While in the midst of his studies, Flaxman realized that an election or two had come and gone without his participation and that’s when he had his “ah-ha moment.”

“If I’m missing elections, we have a process problem,” Flaxman said. “ The system just isn’t designed to fit the way we live so that started me on this journey.”

Flaxman said the goal of TurboVote is to take as much of the friction out of the election process as possible.

Users of the site create an account with all the pertinent information—TurboVote uses the National Voter Registration Form as well as individual absentee ballot request forms from each state —and then TuboVote mails a populated form and a pre-addressed, stamped envelope to the voter for their signature and to return to their local elections office.

To make sure those forms get sent it, TurboVote sends the user a text message and an email reminding them to turn in the forms.

But TurboVote’s connection doesn’t end there. Once someone becomes a user, Turbo vote tracks the election calendar for that individual and sends out reminders about upcoming elections as well as deadlines for things such as updating voter registration and requesting an absentee ballot.

“It’s not just a one-time tool,” Flaxman said. “You only have to sign up once, but we’ there throughout.”

Flaxman said that TurboVote will even pro-actively reach out to users to inquire whether they have moved and need to change their address—something that is very important for most college-aged voters.

Currently Flaxman and a staff of five, including co-founder Katy Peters who Flaxman started TurboVote with in 2012, work out of a shared office space designed for nonprofits in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“It has been great watching Seth and his team grow. I began informally advising Seth when I was still Secretary of State,” said Trey Grayson, director of the Institute for Politics at Harvard and former Kentucky secretary of state. “ I was on the IOP's Senior Advisory Committee, and one of our staff members encouraged me to meet with this HKS student who had an interesting idea to "make voting as easy as Netflix". I was immediately intrigued.”

From the role of advisor, Grayson, along with two other Harvard faculty members, is on the unpaid board for TurboVote.

“I'm a big believer,” Grayson said.

Turvote vote also has some big believers in the grant-making world. TurboVote has received funding from the Sunlight Foundation, Google, Knight Foundation, Weinmann Charitable Trusts, New Place Fund, Youth Engagement Fund and individual donors.

Although initially designed with college students in mind, Flaxman noted that TurboVote is a nationwide service so any eligible voter in the country can use the website.

That being said, TurboVote is currently partnering with about 20 colleges and universities to make sure students know about the site. Harvard of course was the first university to partner with Flaxman, but schools from Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and New York — to name a few — have also partnered with TurboVote.

How the schools present the website to their students varies. At Harvard, it’s tied into the class registration process, some schools email information and the link to the entire student body and at some there is a link school’s website.

Flaxman hopes to work with more schools for the upcoming academic year and sees the 2012 election as a good hook to get more schools signed on as partners. He’s also considering branching out to working with schools’ alumni associations.

But all this focus on the here and now doesn’t mean that he has turned a blind eye to the future.

“Right now, we’re focusing on making voter registration and voting by mail as easy as renting a Netflix,” Flaxman said. “That’s a pretty big mission for right now, but our next step is to figure out on the back end how to help local election boards save time and money.”

Oh and while Flaxman may one day have the fame that his fellow Harvard alum and his billions of friends may have, he’s not counting on the fortune part. Flaxman created a 501(c)3 called Democracy Works to run TurboVote.

(TurboVote is looking for interns/volunteers, especially any students from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. If you’re interested, please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Seth Flaxman directly.)