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electionlineWeekly — February 20, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

Dude! Where’s my ballot?
Democracy Works pilots new ballot-tracking program

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Even in this day and age where just about everything is done online, elections officials nationwide are still tied to their telephones.

In the days leading up to an election, elections offices can field hundreds of phone calls each day as anxious voters want to check on the status of their mail ballot.

Not only can and does this put a strain on understaffed and overworked elections offices, it can put a strain on voters who get busy signals or are put on hold.

Democracy Works — which most of you may recognize as the nonprofit parent organization for TurboVote — is working on a pilot project that will help alleviate some of this pressure on both the elections officials and the voters.

“From the beginning of TurboVote, we knew that to improve elections for everyone, we needed to work with the people who actually run them,” said Kathryn Peters, co-founder of TurboVote.

So Democracy Works partnered with Reboot, a service-design consultancy to shadow election administration in six offices in Colorado, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, and Vermont in 2013.

Before beginning to build tools for election officials, Peters said Democracy Works wanted to learn how they worked, what they wanted for their own voters and operations, and what good ideas and innovations they could learn from or even simply help popularize.

“What we definitely came across [while conducting the study] is that local election administrators are always trying to look for ways to do their jobs better,” said Monica Crane Childers, director of government services for Democracy Works. “There is an intense desire to serve the voter better.”

Following the study, Peters said they found a ballot tracking was a major issue facing elections officials. Also during the study they learned of ballot-tracking systems several elections offices were using and liking and so Democracy Works set out to make a similar tool available to a wider audience.

The system that Democracy Works has designed uses the Intelligent Mail Barcodes (IMb) that are already provided by the U.S. Postal Service to track mail. It provides elections officials with a dashboard to review ballot envelopes so they can see when a voter has returned the ballot, anticipate big waves of mail and help officials let voters know when their ballot has arrived.

So far the new system is just for domestic ballots because military postal system doesn’t use the bar-coding system like the U.S. Postal Service does.

The pilot ballot-tracking program  — which doesn’t yet have its own name — is being conducted in several jurisdictions including Martin County, Fla. and Boone County, Mo.

“We are very excited to be a part of this pilot program,” said Debbie Dent, chief deputy, Martin County, Fla. Elections Center. “More and more of our voters are opting to vote by mail and this program will be a great tool for both voters and election staff."

In 2012 40 percent of Martin County voters cast a ballot by mail and Dent anticipates that number increasing with each passing election. Although Martin County did partner with an outside vendor to track the ballots in 2012, the vendor only allowed elections staff to track the ballots.

The Democracy Works program will allow voters to track their ballot just like their latest order from Amazon.

“We anticipate fewer phone calls from voters,” Dent said. “The voter’s and election staff’s comfort level will be higher since they will be able to identify where the ballot is at all times.”

Wendy Noren, Boone County, Mo. clerk has been working with Democracy Works by reviewing screen layouts, data transfer methods and usability as they move through the design process.

According to Noren, Boone County voters have been receiving email notifications of absentee milestones since 2004.  These include emails sent to voter when their application is received, ballot sent, ballot received back in office and processed/counted.  These are sent the night the transactions occur.  

“Most jurisdictions require voters to remember to go to a website to look up their status,” Noren said. “I modeled ours on web-based shopping sites that send you notifications of order received, order shipped etc. rather than requiring you to constantly check their site.  Our voters really like this approach.”

Noren noted that despite even their best efforts and those of the local postal officials the Boone County system is imperfect in tracking ballots, especially those delayed in other parts of the country.

“This part of the process can only be resolved by implementing intelligent mail barcode,” Noren said.

The program is free to the localities that are working with Democracy Works during the pilot process, but there will be a fee of some sort once the program is available to all. Crane Childers said in addition to working with the counties on the actual program, they are also working with counties to settle on a price point that makes sense for everyone.