I. In Focus This Week
Website serves as one-stop shopping for voters
Originally designed for students, site is available to all voters
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.
II. Election News This Week
- Everyone has some type of skeleton in their closet. Unfortunately for the city of Anchorage, the skeleton it recently discovered in a closet was black bags containing 141 more uncounted ballots from the disastrous April primary. “It’s 141 ballots. It’s not going to change the outcome of any election. But the fact of the matter is, I’m gonna tell you I’m having enough trouble living with the fact that we had a messed up election. I’m not going to live with the fact that maybe somebody’s vote didn’t get counted that made the effort to come out and do it. Whatever we have to do to make sure that all 141 of those are accounted for, we’re going to do it,” Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall told Alaska Public Radio. According to APR, next week the election commission will meet to check the ballots and information about which precincts the ballots came from will be released in a report. Because of the discovery of the additional ballots, the election will need to be re-certified Hall says, likely in early August.
- Following hundreds of calls from concerned and annoyed voters, this week Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler and registrars from across The Pelican State are warning citizens about a voter registration mailing from the Voter Participation Center. Complaints about the registration forms include pre-filled applications with nicknames, residents who thought someone was trying to change their name and deceased applicants’ names on mailings. "We do not believe that VPC performed proper due diligence in purchasing the list used for the mailing," Schedler told KATC. "If the mailing had included current information, we would not have had the numerous complaints that were filed with our office. Not only did the list contain dead people, but it also contained minors and felons which opens the door to voter fraud."
- In an effort to fix issues that resulted in election night reporting problems, the Waukesha County Board has agreed to request $256,300 from the county’s contingency fund. According to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the additional spending request includes $237,300 for Command Central LLC, an election software vendor, to program voting machines for the May and June recall elections and for the August primary. It also includes $4,000 to send two employees in the clerk's office and an information technology specialist to the firm's headquarters for training so others are capable of programming the equipment for the November election. It would cost $67,000 more to have Command Central do it. And $15,000 more was spent on an analysis of problems and recommendations by SysLogic Inc., a consultant in business processes.
- Personnel News: John Boyers has joined the Sumner County, Tenn. election commission as the new Democrat appointee. Alysoun McLaughlin has left her position with the D.C. Board of Elections, but she hasn’t gone too far. McLaughlin is now the deputy director of elections in Montgomery County, Md.
III. Research and Report Summaries
The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification - Keesha Gaskins and Sundeep Iyer, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, July 2012: This new report examines the challenges eligible voters face in obtaining the proper identification in 10 states where laws require voters to present ID at the polls. These challenges include:
Nearly half a million eligible voters do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office.
More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office.
Many ID-issuing offices have limited business hours.
State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010 - Christopher Uggen and Sarah Shannon, University of Minnesota, Jeff Manza, New York University, Sentencing Project, July 2012: New research from the Sentencing Project finds:
1 of every 40 adults has lost the right to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction.
In Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia more than 7 percent of the adult population has lost the right to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction.
Approximately 7.7 percent of the adult African American population has lost the right to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.
Connecticut: Cost of elections
Georgia: Runoff elections
Iowa: Voter ID
Kentucky: Ex-felon voting rights
Massachusetts: Election transparency
Mississippi: Military and overseas voters
Missouri: Secretary of state
New Hampshire: Voting system
New York: New York City BOE
South Carolina: Voter ID
Texas: Voter ID
Washington: Secretary of state
Wisconsin: Credible election system
**Some sites may require registration.
V. Job Openings