By Kim Nelson, Microsoft US Public Sector executive director of eGovernment & Doug Chapin, director of Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States
In the run-up to the 2008 elections, approximately 120 million people went online seeking information about the general election, and four out of five Americans visited a government website in search of information or assistance. While it’s no surprise that citizens are seeking information online, the Pew Center on the States was quick to recognize that more efficient ways to assist voters in finding what they need to participate in the election process are needed. And a top priority is making relevant information more accessible to voters by leveraging the online and mobile technologies that all of us already use on a daily basis.
We sat down with Doug Chapin, director of Election Initiatives at Pew and champion of the Voting Information Project, to talk about the announcement we’re making at the Personal Democracy Forum today regarding how Microsoft’s new partnership with Pew is helping them change the way voters gain access to critical election-day information.
How did the Voting Information Project (VIP) begin and where is it heading?
The exponential growth of high-speed mobile networks, and the ever-expanding family of smartphone and tablet devices they support, has literally revolutionized the way we communicate. The public sector must keep pace –public agencies are treasure troves of vital and useful information, but that information is often scattered across different agencies in different forms with little or no ability for citizens to access it. The solution is simple: government must, as a matter of course, standardize information in an open and freely available form so that the technology community can use its creativity to develop and deliver apps, widgets, and other portals through which Americans can use the devices they know to get what they need from government.
In 2007, Pew’s elections team set out to transform the way in which voters answer some of the most common electoral process questions: “Where do I vote? What’s (and who’s) on my ballot? What are the rules and deadlines for voting?” To do that, our Pew staff worked with state and local election offices and technology companies to create the Voting Information Project, which has brought the answer to those questions to the laptops, tablets and mobile phones of tens of millions of Americans.
What impact did VIP have on the voting experience in 2010?
In 2010, VIP expanded to include official voting information from 19 states and the District of Columbia. This information was then delivered on demand to voters via the Voting Information Project (VIP) Web tool providing official, customized data on polling place locations, including maps and directions, along with a list of candidates and issues on the ballot—all in an easy-to-use format. VIP data was viewed more than 10 million times in the run-up to the 2010 elections and was featured on major media outlets including CNN, NPR and The Wall Street Journal.
We expect to see widespread if not national adoption in time for next year’s national election.
How is VIP different this year? And what is the significance of our work together from your perspective?
As more and more jurisdictions come online with VIP, together, Pew and Microsoft are partnering to provide more information to a larger audience through a greater variety of applications and tools as well as improved interfaces. With more comprehensive information from more jurisdictions, millions of voters will have an easier time finding the answers they need to cast a vote on Election Day.
We are accomplishing that by publishing free, official voting information through two new outlets supported by Microsoft’s Azure platform. Today, we are thrilled to announce a new application programming interface (API) as well as the availability of VIP data through Microsoft’s Azure DataMarket. These tools will provide more detailed information about Election Day than has ever been available and give engineers and voters alike the ability to access and utilize this crucial information and make it available through venues like Bing, MSN and Facebook.
Who can take advantage of the Voting Information Project? How?
Quite simply, anyone with questions about elections can use VIP data. Voters who are unsure of their polling place or who may want to cast an absentee ballot can use VIP-powered gadgets to get answers. Military and overseas voters in participating states can use a VIP-powered gadget to learn who is on their ballot and then generate an official Write-In Absentee Ballot (WAB) that can be printed and mailed for counting. We are also beginning to see interest on the part of campaigns to use VIP to assist with get-out-the-vote drives by giving potential voters all the information they need about when, where and how to cast their votes.
Election boards, campaign managers, user experience architects, graphic designers, and application developers have a rich set of data from which to build voting applications that will better serve voters.
How does this help citizens exercise their right to vote?
While the act of voting is familiar to millions of Americans, the ever-changing nature of election administration with accompanying changes in deadlines, location and procedures for casting ballots creates a huge demand for information that voters often cannot easily satisfy. VIP uses today’s technology to shorten the distance between voters and their election offices – effectively empowering them to cast a valid and timely ballot at a lower cost in time and effort than was previously possible.
For more information on the Voting Information Project, please visit: