In his acceptance speech after winning the election in November, President Obama thanked everyone who cast a ballot, including first-timers and those who waited in line for a very long time. Thanks to storm fallout, voter identification laws, new scanners, and machine errors, lines at voting stations across the country stretched for as long as three hours. After issuing his thanks, Obama quickly added, apparently off the cuff: “By the way – we have to fix that.”
Among the most likely candidates for groups that actually might be able to fix that is TurboVote, a New York-based nonprofit startup that in 2012 brought the US the closest thing it has ever had to automated voter registration. After testing its Web-based product in a pilot program of 300 Boston University students for the 2010 midterm congressional elections, TurboVote last year scaled up for the big stage and got a boost from Google, which linked to the registration site on its homepage in the week leading up to National Voter Registration Day on September 25. Google.org is one of TurboVote’s backers, who also include the Knight Foundation, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.
TurboVote has come from being an interesting idea in 2010 to a potentially transformative registration utility in the space of just two years. Its basic idea is to allow people to register to vote once in their lives and only once, even if they happen to move. You just sign up online with your essential details, and then TurboVote will keep track of all the rules and deadlines that apply to where you’re voting. When it comes time to vote, you fill out the relevant forms on the site, and it then sends you the papers in a stamped, addressed envelope. From then, all you have to do is drop them in the email. As TurboVote’s website says, “It’s democracy, made awesomer.”
TurboVote doesn’t have many analogues. Its interests align with get-out-the-vote group Rock the Vote, which could potentially use TurboVote’s technology, and as Election Day neared last year, it got the nearest thing it can have to a competitor: Votebox, started by a Stanford MBA student who wants to make the two-step voting process more like online shopping.
Over the course of the presidential election, 188,000 voters used TurboVote, which in turn mailed out 87,000 voting forms. It partnered with 29 non-profit groups and 58 colleges, all of which paid a license to use the technology. During the Google promotion, it handled as many as 3,000 simultaneous users on the site.
“We proved we could do it and that people wanted to use it,” TurboVote co-founder Seth Flaxman says of the successful year. Flaxman founded the nonprofit in 2010 with Kathryn Peters while both were studying towards a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They wanted to address a voter participation crisis that distorts the influence of political insiders and exaggerates the importance of hardcore fringe groups that are motivated to try to manipulate the democratic process (“Hello, Tea Party!” “Hello, vegan militants!”).
The US ranks 138th in the world when it comes to voter participation. In a presidential election, about half the country votes, but in local elections and primaries that figure ranges between 10 percent and 40 percent. That means there’s a heightened chance of extreme elements having an outsized influence in electing, say, a party candidate for Senate, or even a district court judge. In a time of fiscal cliffs and Super PACs, the imperative for greater voter participation becomes only more intense. The higher the participation level, the more diluted is the power of special interest groups.
The big election might be over, but TurboVote is only just getting started. Last year, it found that its partnerships with colleges were both the most lucrative and the most successful in terms of getting large numbers of people signed up, and in integrating the system seamlessly. So this year it will focus on increasing the number of its college partnerships. A month before Election Day, a spokeswoman from the University of Florida, which had promoted TurboVote on its website and by email, told the New York Times it had registered more than 3,000 students via the service. “We single-handedly registered more people in a couple of hours than several organizations that have been doing this for months,” she said.
The startup is also hiring, adding six developers to its existing count of two. More importantly, however, it is now seeking a “sustainability round” of funding. Last year it raised $1 million through various grants and earned income, and it now hopes to raise a further $3 million to see it through 2015, by which time Flaxman hopes the organization will be self-sustaining.
If it can raise the cash, TurboVote has visions to build the country’s first full electoral data sets: of every election date for every type of election; of all the offices for which people can run, from Florida’s Mosquito Abatement District Coordinator to the White House; and of all the names and details of candidates running for those positions. In the majority of states, most of that information is kept in paper files, isn’t even machine readable, and is administered by under-resourced counties.
The goal for TurboVote, says Flaxman, has always been to build “a powerful utility of the future.” Now that the impetus for voting system reform has come from the highest level, interest in groups like TurboVote will only get stronger. It’ll have to be, because Flaxman’s goals are lofty. “If we’re successful,” he says, “we will be how every American experiences voting.”
[Image courtesy minddesk]