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electionlineWeekly — July 26, 2012

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I. In Focus This Week

Washington State partners with Microsoft and Facebook
Facebook voter registration app set to launch soon

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Now, in addition to letting all their friends know about what they had for dinner last night, or their political views, what they are listening to on Spotify, or their relationship status, Facebook users in Washington State will soon be able to let all their friends know that they are registered to vote.

The Washington Secretary of State’s Office has teamed up with Microsoft and Facebook to offer citizens in Washington a first-in-the-nation opportunity to register to vote via the social networking site.

“Our estimate [through Pew’s Electronic Registration Information Center] is that we have potentially two million eligible, but unregistered voters,” said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. “The Facebook app is a marvelous way to prompt people onto our MyVote site for both registration and updates, as well as our voter vault of customized information.”

Ammons noted that the state has had online registration since 2008 and that it is quite popular, especially with the Millennials. About a third of the state’s registration traffic is online.

Washington had already teamed up with Microsoft to create the states voting web portal My Vote so according to Shane Hamlin, co-director of elections for the state, there was a confidence there in working with Microsoft on this project.

After being approached by Facebook about the possibility, Microsoft created a special application for the social networking site that will allow citizens in Washington to tap into the state’s online voter registration system and register.

The app essentially pre-populates a form with whatever information Facebook has on the user — usually just a name and birthdate — and then the state’s voter registration system takes over first confirming whether or not the user is actually a registered voter or not.

If it turns out the user is already registered, the site takes to you a page that lets the user log-in to My Vote to confirm that their information is all up-to-date. If the user isn’t registered, they are then taken through the registration and verification process.

Hamlin said the entire process takes about 5-6 minutes and about 7 screens to be complete. He noted that throughout the process there is helpful information provided about voter registration deadlines.

“Our system as it exists on our website is the same as it is on Facebook,” Hamlin said.

The app will be available through Secretary of State Sam Reed’s Facebook page as well as through the state’s elections Facebook page.

As with any online application, security is always an issue. And in this instance there are also concerns about privacy because Facebook has received complaints about what information Facebook keeps about its users.

Hamlin said that there were discussions within the secretary of state’s office about some of the mixed feelings people have about Facebook and that despite the mixed views they eventually decided it was too great an opportunity to pass up.

“Facebook, Microsoft, and Washington State have worked hard to protect privacy and the integrity of the elections, while affording voters this convenience,” said David Becker, director, Elections Initiatives, Pew Center on the States [electionline.org is funded by the Pew Center on the States] “All three should all be credited with partnering together to make this system work for voters.”

Elections officials, Microsoft and Facebook have been working on the project for about a year now, but according to Hamlin, his IT staff has only had to spend about 12 hours or less working on the project and absolutely no additional money.

And since the story first came out last week — a bit earlier than Hamlin and his team had planned — he’s spent countless hours talking to reporters about the project. News stories about the partnership have appeared in just about every major newspaper in the country and pretty much everywhere in between.

“I’ve spent more time than anyone just managing it and being part of communications,” Hamlin said.

The app has yet to launch yet because they are still working out some issues on the user side of things like compatibility with various browsers. Hamlin said as soon as they issues are ironed out, they will launch the app—which will be well in advance of the state’s voter registration deadline for the November election.

Hamlin said his office has already been contacted by several other states wishing to replicate what Washington is doing with Facebook.

“I think that any state that has online registration can have a conversation internally because the program can be modified to accommodate almost any state’s online voter registration,” Hamlin said.

Editor’s Note: While perusing the state’s Facebook page, electionline came upon an “I Voted” photo that users can share with their Facebook friends to indicate that they have indeed voted. As you know, electionline has a fondness for “I Voted” stickers and thinks this is a great (free) way for elections officials to help people let their friends know they voted!