The EAC's "Clearie" Winners Demonstrate Election Innovation

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in December 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


In November, the Election Assistance Commission announced the recipients of its Clearie (think “Clearinghouse”) awards for best practices in election administration. 

According to EAC Chairman Matthew Masterson, the Clearies serve a dual function: they give recognition for work well done while also amplifying smart ideas for the benefit of other election officials.

“In our work we see first-hand the innovative strategies and unique approaches that election administrators bring to their work,” explains Matt, “and we are always looking for ways to share that information with other jurisdictions that may find it useful.”

In that same spirit, we’re taking a closer look at these 8 award-winning ideas and the people behind them. We’ll also share insights from several of the recipients on the current state of election innovation. 

Port Huron Township, Michigan enhances poll worker training through color-coded materials and hands-on instruction 

With a population under 9,000, Port Huron Township is the smallest election authority to win a Clearie. But size didn’t stop Clerk Benita Davis and her colleagues from overhauling their poll worker training protocol with new color coding and a “multi-station, hands-on approach.” 

The result has been more smoothly functioning polling places at little or no additional cost. 

A sampling of Port Huron Township’s color-coded training materials. Photo Courtesy of the Port Huron Township Clerk. 

A sampling of Port Huron Township’s color-coded training materials. Photo Courtesy of the Port Huron Township Clerk. 

A lot of the inspiration for the new system, Benita says, came out of meetings with organizations like the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and the Michigan Township Association.

“I feel that the reason we are able to be recognized right alongside larger authorities is due to the amazing Clerk organizations that we belong to,” she explains, adding, “We’re also fortunate that our workers are so receptive and eager to embrace new things.”

Washington Secretary of State partners with stakeholders to design an accessible web portal

Discussions about accessibility often focus on the idea of compliance. When the Washington Secretary of State decided to rework its MyVote web portal in 2016, however, the state’s Disability Advisory Committee wanted to do more.

They ended up undertaking a full website redesign, working with the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library and the National Federation of the Blind for essential feedback. 

“Under Secretary Wyman’s leadership, accessibility is incorporated into everything we do,” says Director of Elections Lori Augino. “Most election officials shy away from major projects in high-stakes years. But this one was so important to the team that they took it on and really delivered.”

MyVote: “fully accessible and responsive”

MyVote: “fully accessible and responsive”

Ultimately, the redesigned MyVote site broke records for voter registrations submitted through the portal, and the Secretary’s office received praise from accessibility advocates. 

Indian River County, Florida puts voter education in everyday places with bollard signs 

You might not know the word “bollard,” but you’ve definitely seen them. They’re the protective posts that help keep pedestrians safe from traffic in places like big-box stores and public schools. In Indian River County, they also provide voter information. 

After seeing bollards used for advertising, the staff of the Indian River County Supervisor of Elections decided to use bollard covers to provide civic information in their community. 

Tweet from the Indian River Supervisor of Elections shows off a bollard cover installed at a local elementary school

Tweet from the Indian River Supervisor of Elections shows off a bollard cover installed at a local elementary school

Using the bollard covers, the office has been able to introduce voter education into people’s everyday routines, even Tweeting about it with the hashtag #PostTheVote.

El Paso County, Colorado makes voting more accessible by partnering with a local nonprofit

In 2016, the El Paso County Elections Department wanted to make voting more accessible to people with disabilities, and for support, the staff worked with a community organization called the Independence Center. Combining expertise in elections and accessibility, they worked together to find new approaches to meeting community needs. 

Independence Center staff helped train poll workers to better support people with disabilities, and the Department held an open house at the Center to demonstrate voting equipment. The Elections Department even decided to use the Independence Center’s headquarters in Colorado Springs as a vote center location.

All told, the partnership produced better training for the elections team and improved service for El Paso County voters.

Denver, Colorado simplifies the petition signature process with eSign

Clipboards and ballpoint pens might be going out of fashion in Denver. With eSign, the Elections Division’s new mobile petition signing application, people circulating petitions can collect signatures with a stylus and tablet. 

Since eSign interfaces with Denver’s voter database, petitioners can immediately confirm if signers are registered to vote and live in the appropriate district. What’s more, signature acceptance rates are far higher than with paper -- 97% compared to just 70%.

Petition circulators learn how to use eSign. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

Petition circulators learn how to use eSign. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

Director of Elections Amber McReynolds stresses that eSign helps the entire community -- not just folks circulating petitions.

“By enhancing the ballot access experience,” she says, “we were able to simultaneously increase our operational efficiencies for petition processing (which in turn conserves taxpayer dollars), provide better accessibility options and security to voters signing petitions, and provide improved transparency to candidates and campaigns accessing the ballot.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota helps high schoolers develop civic literacy as Student Election Judges

You need to be at least 18 to vote in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved with elections before then. Through Minneapolis’s Student Election Judge program, students over 16 can serve as poll workers, allowing them to participate in the civic life of their city while also earning money or, if they prefer, community service credit. 

In turn, the students supply Minneapolis’s Elections and Voter Services Division with needed service -- especially regarding language support. In 2016, EVS reported that 45% of Student Election Judges were bilingual.

For more evidence of the program’s impact, you can look at participants’ survey responses. After supporting the 2016 General Election, 91% of students who responded said they now know how to vote, and 85% said they’re more likely to vote as a result of their experience. 

Pierce County, Washington streamlines ballot processing using Batch Tracker Manager program

Sometimes, one change can spur more innovation. That’s what happened when the Pierce County Auditor’s Office debuted a digital ballot scan system following the 2016 Presidential Election. 

This advance allowed the county’s ballot processing team to handle more ballots more quickly, leading to new innovation: the Batch Tracker Manager. With the BTM, the staff can process ballots in batches of 250, and each batch has a barcoded card for easy tracking through the system.

The result has been greatly improved efficiency. 

Pierce County’s Batch Tracker system with barcode card at left. Photo courtesy of the Pierce County Auditor.

Pierce County’s Batch Tracker system with barcode card at left. Photo courtesy of the Pierce County Auditor.

“Implementing new election technology is the best time to unleash creativity!” emphasizes Auditor Julie Anderson. “While you are learning about your new equipment or system, take the time to completely rethink everything in your election workflow. You’ll make surprising discoveries.”

Disability rights organization provides an app to support accessible vote centers in Collin County, Texas

In suburban Dallas, a local accessibility advocacy group partnered with the Collin County Elections Department and other groups to help make vote centers more accessible. 

Kate Garrison, President of Collin County Democrats with Disabilities (CCDWD), wanted to make a mobile app that members of the public could use to assess polling place accessibility and report problems. Using Google Forms, Kate made a simple program prompting volunteers to check for proper signage and curbside voting space. 

The app prompts users to report curbside voting problems

The app prompts users to report curbside voting problems

“The app,” explains Kate, “enables the system administrator to respond to requests to vote without entering the polling place (curbside vote) in a more consistent way. Now, the voter no longer has to honk the car horn or ask a pedestrian to notify the polling place judge.”

During the 2016 General Election, volunteers used the app to to review 45 vote centers, and they reported 17 locations with signage problems and 15 that lacked space for curbside voting. Working with Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet, CCDWD made recommendations to resolve problems for future elections. 

The Clearies as a group

The Clearie winners are a diverse bunch, including election offices large and small, from coast to coast. 

Matt Masterson says he was pleased -- but not surprised -- to see so much variety among the submissions. 

“Sometimes it’s the jurisdictions with fewer people and fewer dollars that find the best ways to maximize resources to improve the voter experience,” observes Matt. “We are thrilled with the broad spectrum of entries that we received this year, and we are even more pleased that our winners hail from such diverse jurisdictions.”

With their wide range of innovations, the Clearie recipients offer enough fresh ideas to inspire any election official who’s thinking about new directions to explore in 2018. 

For more details, including the winners’ original submission materials, visit the EAC’s Clearies web page.


What election innovations did you explore this year? We may not have Clearies to give away, but we’d love to spotlight your work in an upcoming newsletter. Email kurt@techandciviclife.org

Denver Publishes Election Data in Interactive Charts

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in November 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


If you follow the Denver Elections Division on Twitter, you know that it’s an election office that loves to tell its story to the community. In its Tweets, the Division profiles voters happily inserting ballots into drop boxes, shares behind-the-scenes photos of office operations, and shows how running elections is a year-round effort using the informative (and funny) hashtag #WhatWeDoBetweenElections.

You can also see this desire to enlighten the public in the way the office publishes election data. 

By using interactive Microsoft Power BI dashboards, the election team is able to provide useful information to its audience instead of just raw numbers. It’s a great example of how an office can deliver data in a format that’s user friendly for data geeks and the general public alike. 

Publishing data proactively

In recent years, Colorado has become synonymous with election innovation, and Denver has been at the forefront. A growing, energetic city, Denver is home to over 453,000 registered voters who cast ballots by mail, at drop boxes placed throughout the city, and at convenient Voter Service and Polling Center locations. 

It’s easy to vote in Denver, and the Denver Elections Division also makes it easy to use the data that it produces. 

That’s because, according to Communications Specialist Joe Szuszwalak, the Division understands data as a resource, and he and his colleagues make data publicly available so more people can benefit from it. 

Communications Team members Joe Szuszwalak, Alton Dillard, and Amelia McClain. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

Communications Team members Joe Szuszwalak, Alton Dillard, and Amelia McClain. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

“Our team is very data driven,” says Joe. “Our policies and processes are outcomes from thorough analysis of related customer and internal data. By publishing these dashboards publicly, we hope to provide our customers with the same opportunities to track trends and gather information on the elections process.”

Now, anyone who’s curious can explore data on things like registration, turnout, and election costs in a series of dashboards on Denver’s Election and Voter Data web page

Staff members collaborated to make the dashboards. Data Architect Paul Huntsburger provided the data, Ballot Operations Coordinator Stuart Clubb and GIS Analyst Steven Sharp created the visualizations, and the Division’s Communications Team tackled web publishing. 

From the perspective of the staff, a major benefit of the dashboards is the ability to push data out to the community instead of making people ask for it, explains Joe. 

“By proactively publishing this type of information, we have reduced data requests to our office and increased transparency and engagement with our community partners and customers.”

Making data interactive

Denver’s dashboards are actually built on two different data visualization platforms: Tableau and Microsoft Power BI. The reason is that the Division sees benefits of both. 

Joe says that the data team likes to use Tableau -- which we highlighted in our May 2017 spotlight on Greenwich, Connecticut -- to visualize geospatial data, while it favors Power BI for making charts. 

“Power BI is great for making data displays of non-geospatial data, with robust chart and graph capabilities,” Joe observes. In addition, as a Microsoft product, it can be included in an election office’s licensing agreement, and for people who use a lot of Microsoft products, it may be more intuitive than Tableau.

Joe with Ballot Operations Coordinator Stu Clubb, who created the Power BI visualizations. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division

Joe with Ballot Operations Coordinator Stu Clubb, who created the Power BI visualizations. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division

To make a dashboard in Power BI, you start by building a report. You connect to a dataset, choose which data fields to display, and then select the type of visualizations you want. 

You can put several visualizations together, and once you’re happy with it, you publish it to the Power BI site, where you’ll transform your report into a dashboard for public access. As the final step, you can embed your finished dashboard into your website. 

On the user’s end, what’s most important about the dashboards is their interactivity. “The ability to interact with data in a visual manner,” Joe explains, “provides unique opportunities to ‘dig deeper’ into the data.”

For instance, let’s say you’re curious about election costs for Presidential Elections. When you go to the election costs dashboard, it presents you with costs for 17 races. But, to see only Presidential Elections, you just click on a checkbox to filter the data.

Now, you can immediately see three data points on Presidential Election costs, and the chart shows costs decreased from 2008 to 2012 and then 2016. Nice job, Denver!

By filtering the chart, you can compare apples to apples

By filtering the chart, you can compare apples to apples

The interactivity also highlights relationships between variables. 

“By selecting certain options, one can begin to build a better picture of how some variables may affect others,” Joe explains. “And making these connections in a visual manner instead of looking at raw data really solidifies the comprehension of the information being conveyed.”

For example, if you want to see how many registered voters are both unaffiliated and inactive, you can find the number (22,463) with just one or two clicks. 

Selecting more than one variable allows you to drill down into data

Selecting more than one variable allows you to drill down into data

Clearly, finding answers like these would be much more difficult without the Power BI dashboards. 

Achieving benefits for everyone

Since launching the dashboards, Joe and his colleagues have heard encouraging feedback from members of the public as well as other election offices. 

“Our audience values the convenience of having the data published in a visual, interactive format that is continually updated,” he says. “We have also heard from other offices making use of the statewide data that we have available.”

All told, the dashboards have been beneficial for everyone. The election team has achieved greater transparency and public service while reducing the need for data requests. Meanwhile, community members can access data quickly and easily, finding answers to their questions without needing to wade through spreadsheets. 

Voting Process Administrator Heather Heyer with Joe at a community event. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

Voting Process Administrator Heather Heyer with Joe at a community event. Photo courtesy of the Denver Elections Division.

Joe acknowledges that making data visualizations can be complicated, but he encourages election officials to try making a dashboard with Power BI. He says that since most officials already know their data, all that’s needed is to get familiar with the platform.

“Power BI is simply an additional tool available to make the data more consumable to our customers,” he suggests. “And there are many resources (YouTube tutorials, etc.) available on the internet to help anyone looking to get started with the Power BI application.”

In fact, the Power BI site has plenty of good content to help you get started, including this run-though of basic concepts for Power BI. And for people who want to check out the tool, there’s a free version of the platform that includes much of the functionality of the pro version.

In addition, if you have questions about Power BI or about Denver’s dashboards, you can email Joe Szuszwalak and he’ll do his best to steer you in the right direction. 


What solutions has your office come up with to provide data in user-friendly formats? Share your best practices by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org.


 

Rhode Island promotes election participation with RI Votes portal

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in September 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


In every community -- large and small, red state and blue state alike -- encouraging civic participation is an ongoing challenge. No matter whether turnout is 20% or 80%, election officials recognize that a healthy democracy relies on the active involvement of all citizens. 

Rhode Island may be the nation’s smallest state, but it’s come up with some big ideas for motivating people to vote. The Rhode Island Department of State’s innovative RI Votes website goes beyond just providing civic information. Using interactive design, RI Votes addresses visitors with a straightforward, relatable voice, guiding them through the information they need while offering inspiration along the way. 

Targeting a problem

Although it’s useful for everybody, RI Votes is focused on reaching young adults in the Ocean State. That’s because, according to Nicole Lagace, who’s Senior Advisor and Director of Communications at the Department, young people have a history of low turnout here. 

“While Millennial voter participation is generally low across the nation, with only 21.5% of registered Millennials voting in the 2014 General Election,” Nicole explains, “turnout in Rhode Island has been even lower.”

Nicole reports that just 17% of Rhode Island voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out for that November 2014 election, which included major contests for Governor, Secretary of State, and seats in the U.S. House and Senate.

To help tackle this problem, the Department sought out -- and received -- a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Prototype Fund. With the grant, Department staff founded a civic fellowship program for high school students, and the ideas for RI Votes came from brainstorming with these fellows. 

The Rhode Island Department of State’s Civic Fellows discuss outreach ideas. Photo by Joe Graziano.

The Rhode Island Department of State’s Civic Fellows discuss outreach ideas. Photo by Joe Graziano.

“The goal,” says Nicole, “was to create a very simple site that walked users through the decision-making process for voting and would drive traffic to our new Online Voter Registration portal. More importantly,” she continues, “we wanted to challenge users who were unsure about voting.”

Nicole and Director of Community Relations Jason Hernandez led a team to develop the site. 

Working with Content and Social Media Specialist Joe Graziano, Nicole drafted content and scripts. Jason worked with fellows and found volunteers to be filmed for the video content. Director of Elections Rob Rock verified that information was complete and accurate. And the Department worked with vendors Lakuna Design, Xzito, and Kevin Issa for design, web development, and video production, respectively.

RI Votes launched in the fall of 2016 -- just in time to help people register in preparation for the Presidential Election.

Making a case for participation

Most election websites are informative but not persuasive. What makes RI Votes so unusual is that it’s both. 

As a starting point, Nicole and Jason’s team wanted to understand the reasons why young people are reluctant to participate in elections. Then, they wanted to challenge each of those concerns with a counterargument. 

Whiteboard with brainstorming notes for RI Votes. Photo by Joe Graziano.

Whiteboard with brainstorming notes for RI Votes. Photo by Joe Graziano.

When you visit the site, the first thing you see is a question: “Are you going to vote?” 

If you answer “yes,” the site gives information about registering, options for voting, and details to help you prepare. But if you answer “Don’t know,” the site gears up to offer support. 

“If they answer ‘Don’t know,’ we ask them why,” Nicole explains. “They are prompted to pick an answer from some of the most common reasons we’ve heard from Millennials: ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ etc. Then we respond with videos from their peers.”

The videos are an essential part of the website’s voice. 

Kevin Issa and Jason Hernandez film intern Kathryn Dery for one of the RI Votes videos. Photo by Joe Graziano.

Kevin Issa and Jason Hernandez film intern Kathryn Dery for one of the RI Votes videos. Photo by Joe Graziano.

“We had their peers film video responses,” Nicole emphasizes, “because we wanted users to feel they were part of a conversation with folks they could relate to rather than being lectured at.”

In another persuasive move, RI Votes emphasizes how each level of government impacts issues that voters care about.

“We often heard in conversations that people don’t vote because they don’t like either presidential candidate,” Nicole recalls. “I wanted to develop a tool that reminded people that there was more to the November election than just the presidential race and that policy decisions about issues they care about are made at all levels of government.”

To do that, the team created an infographic to show how key issues like education and the economy are shaped at the local, state, and federal levels, visualizing the importance of each. 

Close-up of the “levels of government” infographic

Close-up of the “levels of government” infographic

Finally, to make the website’s content more usable, the team used plain language instead of what Nicole calls “bureaucratic government speak” and optimized the design for mobile devices.

Reflecting Rhode Island’s civic pride

Since RI Votes went public last year, it’s been well received. 

“People especially like the candor of the video responses and the ease of use,” reports Nicole. “We’ve also received great reviews on the ‘levels of government’ infographic. In fact, we’ve been working to tailor it for different audiences beyond Millennials, and some groups working on civic engagement have incorporated it into their materials.”

In addition to promoting civic engagement, Nicole says that RI Votes reflects a growing emphasis on building civic pride and making it easier to vote in the state.

Nicole explains, “Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea has often said that voting should not feel like a pop quiz. This is why we worked to redesign our voter information guide and promoted tools in the Voter Information Center that allow voters to preview their sample ballot and map out their polling location. It is also evident in the way we approached the RI Votes website.”

If other election officials are inspired by RI Votes and want to create interactive, persuasive election content, Nicole has some suggestions to keep the job manageable and affordable. 

“First, be very clear about what your goal is and define your audience. Then, be sure to include your audience in your planning and development process. Ask how you can tweak an idea that already exists to make it work better for your own goal. Finally, if staff capacity is an issue, work to identify funding to collaborate with external vendors.”

As for RI Votes, the Department of State has ambitions to improve the site. Nicole is especially interested in transforming the “levels of government” infographic into a more interactive format, and she says the Department will make additional improvements ahead of the next election cycle.


Has your election office found effective ways to promote civic engagement and reach out to low-turnout voters? We’d love to share your success story with our network of over 1,100 election officials. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.

Minneapolis sets election goals with a new business plan

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in July 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Whether you’re taking a vacation, baking a cake, or buying a new car, everybody recognizes the importance of setting goals and making a plan in order to get the outcomes you want. Of course, planning is key for elections, too. 

In Minneapolis, the city’s Elections and Voter Services division is benefitting from a business plan that it’s created to define new goals for running great elections in the city.

It’s called a business plan, but it’s not about dollars and cents. It’s really a plan to enhance civic engagement and better serve the community, emphasizing goals like increasing voter turnout and minimizing waits at the polls.

The heart of one of the Midwest’s biggest metro areas, Minneapolis is home to over 400,000 people, including nearly 246,000 registered voters. For decades, Minnesota has been recognized for its robust civic engagement and voter turnout. In fact, Minneapolis’s voter turnout was about 79% in the 2016 Presidential election, and in 2012 it was nearly 81%. 

Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota

Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota

It’s fair to say that Minnesota has a culture that encourages voting, and that spirit is evident in the business plan created by Minneapolis’s Elections and Voter Services (EVS) division. 

“Our mission is to be the gold standard in election administration,” says Grace Wachlarowicz, Director of EVS.

Setting goals

Minneapolis’s Office of the City Clerk had been making business plans for years, but they didn’t include specific proposals to better serve voters. But when City Clerk Casey Carl, Grace, and colleagues from divisions within the Clerk’s Office came together in 2014, they decided to make a different kind of plan.

“We determined that the business plan was an opportunity to provide policymakers and the public with a stable, consistent foundation that we could use to measure our performance for each year compared to previous years and similar jurisdictions nationwide,” says Grace. 

Grace Wachlarowicz and Casey Carl. Photo courtesy of Grace Wachlarowicz.

Grace Wachlarowicz and Casey Carl. Photo courtesy of Grace Wachlarowicz.

Casey and the management team began by creating broad goals for the Clerk’s Office overall. They used GOTA -- Goals/Objectives/Tactics/Activities -- as a framework to show how long-term goals can be achieved through day-to-day activities. Each goal is broken down into a series of objectives, which in turn are supported by tactics and, ultimately, activities.

For example, here’s a GOTA sequence showing how an activity supports the goal of civic literacy:

Goal: Civic literacy
Objective: Promote public knowledge of core democratic processes
Tactic: Provide residents information about how to shape, influence, and participate in municipal policy and operations
Activity: Identify knowledge gaps and information needs within the community and target populations

With these goals established, EVS staff then took the next step: contributing specific ambitions for election administration.

EVS: Key Performance Indicators

  1. Voters are “election ready”
  2. Voters have equitable, impartial access to the ballot box
  3. Every ballot is accurately and properly counted

These ambitions -- called Key Performance Indicators -- are where the rubber meets the road, and with the business plan released in March 2016, the indicators had a perfect testing ground: the 2016 General Election.

Measuring progress to goals 

Of course, setting goals is important, but it’s only a first step. To really make progress, you need to assess whether or not you reached your goals. 

Following the election in November, Grace and her staff did just that, reporting their findings in the City Clerk’s 2016 annual report.

The report shows a dedicated team striving to provide outstanding public service, and it references plenty of data to substantiate their efforts.

It’s a big report, so let’s look at just 3 areas where they made progress. 

First, EVS worked to supplant same-day registration with early voting. Although Election Day registration can help voters, the report says that it led to waits in the 2012 Presidential election: “It was the single most significant factor causing long lines and extended wait times at the polls that year.”

Election Day registration compared to Early Voting in 2012 and 2016

Election Day registration compared to Early Voting in 2012 and 2016

To reduce the strain, EVS added 3 new early voting locations in 2016, and the effort worked! The number of ballots cast at early voting increased 300%, while the number of same-day registrations was cut in half. 

Second, the EVS team made an effort to collect data on voter wait times. Participating in the Election Day Line Data Collection Program, EVS collected data from 109 of Minneapolis’s 133 precincts. 

“Election judges from each precinct,” according to the report, “were tasked with recording the length of the queueing line in the poll every hour during Election Day, counting all those who had not yet moved past the roster or registration table.” 

Voter wait times in Minneapolis

Voter wait times in Minneapolis

The data collected shows that wait times were significant only during the first 2 hours, and waits were down in 2016 compared to 2012, possibly due to the additional early voting centers.

Finally, in a city with a growing, diverse population, EVS has begun a plan to diversify its force of poll workers. “The goal is to ensure those working in the polls reflect the communities and neighborhoods being served,” says EVS. 

Election judge ethnicity in 2016

Election judge ethnicity in 2016

In 2016, EVS explored partnerships and recorded judges’ ethnicity as first steps to increase diversity. According to the report, diversity did increase in 2016 and can continue to grow with targeted recruitment.

Seeing an impact

EVS’s business plan and annual report have already had a positive effect in Minneapolis.

By designing a process for setting goals, collecting data, and reporting outcomes, Grace and her staff have established smart habits to help them reach their ultimate goal of being the “gold standard in election administration.”

“We’ve been able to make a sound, comprehensive foundation for performance that we can replicate, with modifications as needed, for every 4-year cycle,” Grace emphasizes.

Contributing to the report also confirmed for Grace the significance of data in election administration. “Data collection,” she observes, “really is key to justifying business decisions and measuring performance.”

If other election offices want to set performance goals like EVS did, Grace says they’re welcome to use her team’s business plan and annual report as models. 

She explains, “They can start with an environmental scan, do web research to identify comparable jurisdictions, and set goals with frameworks such as GOTA (Goals/Objectives/Tactics/Activities) and KPI (Key Performance Indicators). The biggest challenge,” she continues, “is to keep this task as a priority to keep it moving.” 

If you have questions about EVS’s business plan, partnerships, or data collection, you can reach out to Grace by emailing Grace.Wachlarowicz@minneapolismn.gov


What methods have you used for setting goals and measuring performance in your office? We’d love to share your experiences. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.
 

Greenwich, Connecticut registrar uses free tool to visualize election data

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in May 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


In the last few years, election officials around the country have really started to embrace the use of data in their work. Whether they’re working with EAVS data, election results, or turnout statistics, officials are recognizing that they can use data that’s already at their fingertips to tell important stories about voting in their communities. 

There’s a great example of this going on in Greenwich, Connecticut, where Registrar of Voters Fred DeCaro III is using a program called Tableau Public to create interactive data visualizations. Focusing specifically on registration data, he’s been working to create a picture -- literally -- of the local electorate. 

“As in any field,” explains Fred, “people learn in different ways. Visualizations help portray the data in a new form which is more accessible to some people.”

Responding to a need

The town of Greenwich is home to just over 37,000 registered voters. A long-established bedroom community for many who work in New York City, Greenwich has 4 train stations to help commuters get around easily. The town’s Voter Registration department has 1 Democratic and 1 Republican Registrar as well as 2 full-time assistants. Working together, they administer 12 voting districts and 1 same-day voter registration location. 

The Greenwich Town Hall. Photo by Catherine Stahl. 

The Greenwich Town Hall. Photo by Catherine Stahl. 

For years, Fred has understood how important voter registration statistics are to local stakeholders, whether they’re candidates, local media representatives, political parties, or just curious citizens. In the past, the department would respond to requests for registration data by sending a simple document either via email or even fax machine. 

Needless to say, this old method came with drawbacks. Fred and his colleagues had to reply to each request individually. Plus, the documents they provided were pretty basic -- just registration numbers separated by party and district and then organized into tables. 

Fred realized that if the department could just make the registration data available on their website in a simple and useful format, there would be no need for people to contact the office to request it. “People always appreciate when reports are available online and on demand,” he acknowledges.

Creating interactive graphics 

Initially, Fred had planned to just publish a simple table of the data on the department website. But two of Fred’s colleagues, Tom Klein and Jake Ellis of the Information Technology department, suggested using Tableau Public to make the data more usable and dynamic.

Tableau is a data analytics and visualization program with an incredible number of functions and features. Tableau Public is a free version of Tableau, and although it lacks some of the bells and whistles of the paid version, it still has plenty of functionality for an election official looking to make some basic data visualizations. 

Fred gives credit to Jake for setting up the necessary Tableau Public infrastructure. “Jake did all of the heavy lifting,” he explains, “including building the dashboards. I basically drew some sketches, and he made it come alive.”

Using Tableau Public, the basic steps are to create a free account, upload your data, and establish settings to display your data in a clear and meaningful way. You can upload data with Excel spreadsheets, or you can connect Tableau to Google Sheets. 

Once their visualizations were ready, Fred and Jake created a new Voter Registration Statistics website to host them. The site includes 4 charts and 1 table, all of which Jake and Fred created with Tableau Public.

The table is basic. Just a collection of numbers, it’s essentially the same document that the Voter Registration department used to send out via email and fax. 

The 4 interactive charts of registration data

The 4 interactive charts of registration data

It’s the charts that are much more special. Instead of just being static images, they’re dynamic and interactive. Making selections in one chart impacts the others, highlighting just the piece of information you’re curious about.

Fred likes this interactive aspect the most. “More important than the visualization itself was the ability to make it interactive,” he says. “To click on a particular segment of data and have all of the other graphs adjust to just show data for that particular segment is powerful. That’s an instant query which might have taken someone 10 or more minutes to calculate.”

To help visitors to the site, Fred even created an 8-minute video that shows how people can use the graphs to find the answers to questions about Greenwich’s registered voters. 

The charts display the number of women under 25 who are registered Republicans: 393

The charts display the number of women under 25 who are registered Republicans: 393

For instance, with a few clicks, you can find the number of women under 25 who are registered Republicans. By making just a few different selections, you can instead display the number of unaffiliated registered voters in a given district.

Hearing back from the public 

So far, Fred says, people seem to really like the interactive voter registration visualizations. 

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Fred reports. “Tableau reduces the need for people to crunch their own numbers, since a few clicks will answer many questions. Plus, the political parties have shown interest in the data because they can see which age groups and genders they are making relative headway with in terms of party registration.” 

Who’s the intended audience for the data? According to Fred, the audience is anybody who’s interested in it. In fact, he believes that making more and more data available can expand the group of people who might use it. 

Breaking down the registered population by district and party was obviously important, but Fred felt that adding gender and age “would provide any social scientist or political junkie with extra value.” 

Registrar of Voters staff members receive Democracy Cup award, with Fred DeCaro III second from right. Photo by Mary DeCaro.

Registrar of Voters staff members receive Democracy Cup award, with Fred DeCaro III second from right. Photo by Mary DeCaro.

Moving forward, Fred hopes to see more and more people use the registration data, and he has further ambitions for visualizing data.

Sharing more election data

In addition to working with historical registration data to show how the local electorate has changed over the years, he hopes to use data to help avoid waits at the polls. “I can see where some of the data we have on polling place usage could be visualized to help people realize when lines will be shorter at the polls,” he explains. 

Fred encourages any election administrators who are considering using Tableau Public to experiment with it but also to take their time.

“Be patient,” he advises. “You won’t learn Tableau Public in 2 hours. Stick with it and ask for help from your IT department or others who might have experience with the program. Once you’re familiar with how Tableau works, you’ll be able to produce valuable information for your community.” 

If you’re new to visualizing data, a good place to get started is this “Visualizing Data Effectively” video produced by the EAC and featuring representatives from the Center for Technology and Civic Life as well as Democracy Works. In addition, we hope to add more data tutorials to the Election Toolkit, so stay tuned for additional details.

If you’re curious about how other election offices are visualizing their data, check out these examples -- each of which takes a slightly different approach: 


What about you? What have you done with election data to better provide information to your community? Share your ideas with us by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org.


 

Suburban Cook County, Illinois helps citizens become candidates with its Running for Office Starter Kit

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in March 2017. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


When major political events like a presidential election happen, everyone’s attention turns to democracy and politics. But when people think about participating in government, most of us still tend to see ourselves as voters rather than as candidates. 

In Suburban Cook County, Illinois, the County Clerk’s office is trying to change that. Its Running for Office Starter Kit (RFO) was born out of the belief that getting on the ballot should be within the reach of every interested citizen. 

“Running for office should be easy,” says Cook County Clerk David Orr. “Unfortunately, it’s more daunting than it should be. With our new Running for Office Starter Kit, so much of the information you need is at your fingertips.”

County Clerk David Orr. Photo courtesy of the Cook County Clerk's office.

County Clerk David Orr. Photo courtesy of the Cook County Clerk's office.

Launched in the fall of 2016 to help prospective candidates file for the April 2017 Consolidated Election, the RFO was set up by Director of Elections Noah Praetz, Deputy Chief of Staff Abdelnasser Rashid, and Candidate Services Manager Colleen Gleason. 

Breaking down barriers

Even though the word “suburban” might make it sound small, Suburban Cook County is one of the largest election jurisdictions in the United States. The Clerk’s office serves some 1.5 million voters in 126 municipalities, making it the third largest jurisdiction in the country after Los Angeles and Houston.

That’s all good, but in recent years, David and his team have identified a problem in local elections: low participation when it comes to running for office. “In April 2015, more than 63 percent of the 699 contests in Suburban Cook County were uncontested,” Noah observes. “We think one reason why is that getting on the ballot is often much harder than it should be.” 

Director of Elections Noah Praetz. Photo courtesy of the Cook County Clerk's office.

Director of Elections Noah Praetz. Photo courtesy of the Cook County Clerk's office.

The fact is, there’s a lot involved in running for office, and there are plenty of pitfalls for candidates who don’t carefully cross their t’s and dot their i’s. 

“You can face costly legal challenges against your paperwork,” says Noah, explaining that even the most innocent filing mistakes can be damaging. “Failure to staple petitions or notarize certain pages can doom your candidacy,” he admits.

Breaking down barriers and helping people weather the storm of running for office was the reason for creating the RFO. What they wanted to build, basically, was a lookup tool to provide citizens with information about public offices that they could run for and materials to streamline the candidate filing process. 

It was a longtime goal of David and Noah, and in 2015, Abdelnasser began making the RFO a reality by building its first prototype. 

The message behind the project, Noah explains, was to say to aspiring officeholders, “If you want to serve, we can help make the first step far less daunting.”

Combining data and design

If you’re a citizen contemplating a run for office, using the RFO is incredibly simple. When you visit the Running for Office website, you start by entering your home address. Once you do, the RFO identifies the districts you’re in and lists the offices that you can run for. 

The RFO displaying offices available to aspiring candidates

The RFO displaying offices available to aspiring candidates

If you find one that sparks your interest, you can read details about the office, the district, and the filing requirements. For park, school, and library offices, you can create a candidate packet. For municipal and township offices, there are links to access candidate materials from the relevant authority. Once you have your materials, you can prepare to file your paperwork and launch your candidacy. 

As you might imagine, data is at the heart of the Kit. But Abdelnasser emphasizes that what makes the RFO truly effective is the way that it combines data with design. 

“The tool is driven by the data,” he explains. “But the data alone would be useless if the interface was confusing and difficult to use. So we spent a lot of time making sure the tool was easy to use and the information easy to access and understand.”

Impacting local democracy

Since debuting the tool in October, the Clerk’s office has been pleased by the response to the RFO. 

“We’re very happy with how it has been used and we received lots of positive feedback,” reports Abdelnasser. “We also got ideas for improvement and have made a few changes based on those.”

In addition to verbal feedback, Noah and Abdelnasser have collected data on how aspiring candidates have actually used it, and the numbers are really encouraging.

The data shows, for one thing, that a lot of people are using the Kit. Between October and December 2016, 406 people created a candidate packet. Many more, no doubt, also used the RFO for information gathering without taking the step of making a packet. 

“This is an online tool with a positive and measurable offline impact,” Abdelnasser states. “It leads to real action that impacts our democracy.”

Deputy Chief of Staff Abdelnasser Rashid. Photo courtesy of the County Clerk's office.

Deputy Chief of Staff Abdelnasser Rashid. Photo courtesy of the County Clerk's office.

RFO data also indicates that people who download packets are quite likely to ultimately file to get on the ballot. For example, of the 288 people who created school board packets, 207 of them ended up filing. That rate -- 72% -- shows that people who use the RFO aren’t just doing it out of curiosity but are actually using it for the reason it was created: to run for office! 

“We’re seeing a high conversion rate of people going all the way to the candidate filing process,” Abdelnasser observes. “For us, that’s one indication that it works.”

Another exciting finding is the numbers of new candidates as compared to incumbents. Of those 207 people who filed for school offices, 61% were new candidates. This means that the Kit already seems to be helping to bring some fresh faces to the ballot. 

And who’s using the tool? If age is any indicator, there’s a good amount of diversity among users. The youngest person who created a candidate packet was 19, and the oldest was 79, with a mean age of 47.5 years. 

Reaching its goals

The Consolidated Election isn’t until next month, but it’s not too early to say that the RFO is already reaching its goals. By simplifying the first steps of running for office, it’s helped to support suburban Chicagoans in pursuing leadership positions. Even better, there’s evidence that the Kit is encouraging people to seek public office who haven’t done so before.

Looking at the Kit, you might assume it would be difficult to create or would require a big budget. But Abdelnasser says that wasn’t the case: “We used in-house developers and our staff curated the data from the disparate sources, allowing us to keep costs at a minimum.” 

If you’re interested in creating an RFO for your own community, he’s happy to help you get started with the first steps. “If others want to do it,” he says, “we would suggest not to recreate the wheel. We’re willing to share the data and the source code that powers the application.” 

If you’d like to take him up on his offer or ask any questions, you can contact him at abdelnasser.rashid@cookcountyil.gov


Helping citizens become candidates was a major goal driving the creation of the Running for Office Starter Kit. What tools or best practices have you created to help aspiring officeholders? Share your experience with us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.

Measuring the impact of 3 election websites

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in December 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


9 jurisdictions around the country are using CTCL’s election website template, and with the close of the 2016 General Election season, we wanted to check in with some of them to hear how their websites have been performing. 

We reached out to 3 jurisdictions: Carroll County, Ohio; Inyo County, California; and Mercer County, West Virginia. Since launching in the summer of 2014, their websites have been viewed over 150,000 times! The election officials we spoke to shared feedback and told us about how their election websites have changed things in their offices. 

The power of simplicity

Above all else, the officials appreciate the fact that their websites are simple and easy for voters to use. Kammi Foote, the Clerk-Recorder-Registrar of Inyo County, California, says what she likes best about the Inyo County Elections website is that “it is mobile friendly and in plain language.”

Inyo County's election website

Inyo County's election website

In the past, Kammi posted election content on her county government website, but, she says, it was “non-mobile friendly and hard to navigate.” But today, the responsive web design and plain language of her new site have made it so that “The public and the media are very pleased to be able to find important civic information quickly.”

That’s also been the experience of Kathy Lambert, Deputy Clerk in Mercer County, West Virginia, who says she often gets positive feedback about how clear and intuitive the Mercer County Election Office website is. According to Kathy, voters frequently tell her “it’s really nice to have someplace to go to get information easily.”

Control and independence

Of course, a good election website should be not just easy for the public to use, but simple for office staff to maintain, too.

Kammi emphasizes that being able to maintain and update her own site has given her more independence when it comes to providing information. “Updating the election website has been very easy and efficient,” she explains, “and having the authority to independently update the website has resulted in faster posting of election results and updates.”

It’s hard to overstate the benefits of having control over your website. “I can’t imagine,” says Kammi, “having to go back to an Information Systems-controlled website with little or no control regarding when updates occur and how.”

Kathy says that, in Mercer County, her site has brought independence not just for office staff, but for poll workers, too. On Election Day, when the office is quite busy, poll workers can check voters’ registration information themselves using a portal on the Mercer election website. This means there’s no need to call the office. “The poll workers have said it really has come in handy because our phones are usually busy most of the day,” Kathy reports.

No news is good news

Although these officials have heard good feedback from the public about their websites, they say that an equally important sign of success is when they hear nothing at all. 

That’s because when voters, candidates, and journalists can find the election information they’re looking for online, there’s less need to contact the office.

Amanda Tubaugh, who serves as Deputy Director of the Board of Elections for Carroll County, Ohio, says that the biggest benefit of having the new Carroll County Board of Elections website is that “Public requests for information have decreased due to the amount of data we are able to place on our website. Election night calls,” she continues, “have also decreased due to placing the results on the website.”

Kathy’s noticed the same thing in Mercer County. She tells us that she used to get a lot of calls asking about past election results, but that’s all changed now. With the website, “I don’t have to look for all that information to give them,” she says. “It’s all right there on the site.”

Mercer County's election website

Mercer County's election website

When citizens no longer need to ask public servants for information, it benefits everybody. Folks in the community find what they need more quickly and easily, while election officials spend less time fielding routine inquiries and can address other tasks.

“It has helped ease the amount of work,” Amanda observes. 

Learning new skills

Election officials say that an additional benefit of having a new website is that it’s given them opportunities to develop new skills. 

Although she admits that she sometimes has to ask for help, Kathy believes that publishing and updating content online “is getting easier the more I work with the site.” She appreciates that maintaining the site pushes her to learn new things, and she hopes to continue learning.

In Inyo County, Kammi has had the same experience; she says that working on the site has helped her feel more confident about her tech skills. 

For instance, she says there was a time when she made a mistake and inadvertently deleted some important content. A voter called her to point out the problem, and it could have been a stressful situation, but Kammi persevered. 

“Because I had done regular back-ups of the website content,” she explains, “I was able to access the backup html and copy and paste the correct information.” She corrected her mistake in just a few minutes, and the best part, she says, was that “We figured out how to do it on our own! Yay, us!”

New ambitions 

Although these election websites have had a positive impact on their offices and communities, the election officials have ambitions to make them even better in the future. 

Carroll County's election website

Carroll County's election website

For example, Amanda says that she’d like to “add widgets to the white space on the site.” Explaining that the Ohio Secretary of State has produced widgets to help votes find election content, Amanda is hoping to use them in Carroll County as additional portals to information. 

Similarly, Kathy is hoping to enhance the election results on her site. “My favorite thing about the website is that you can look at present and past election results,” she says, but for future elections, she’d like to add “a live return of results where people can go to check as the precincts come in on election night.”

We’re confident that with a little time and effort, Amanda and Kathy will be able to achieve these goals in the months to come. 

With their websites, Amanda, Kathy, and Kammi are part of a learning community of election officials who are using technology to improve the voting experience in their counties. Combining their websites with their growing tech skills, they’re expanding public service while also, as Kammi says, “making our office more efficient.”

Do you know an election official who might benefit from a new election website? Tell them about CTCL’s election website template and training.


How has your election website impacted your office and community? Contact us at kurt@techandciviclife.org. We’d love to tell your story. 

Floyd County, Virginia uses ham radio for backup communication on Election Day

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in October 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


As everybody who works in elections knows, you should expect the unexpected to happen on Election Day. Hopefully it’ll be something minor, like a small problem with poll workers or voting equipment. But what if it’s something major, like a flood, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake? How can you plan for something like that?

The Registrar’s office in Floyd County, Virginia offers one example. 

Amy Ingram, General Registrar for Floyd County, has created a contingency communication plan in the event that extreme weather or a natural disaster interferes with the normal lines of communication. Partnering with local amateur radio operators, Amy’s office has created a blueprint for coordinating polling places even if phone lines, mobile networks, and internet are down. 

Downtown Floyd, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Town of Floyd.

Downtown Floyd, Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Town of Floyd.

Floyd County is situated about 30 miles southwest of Roanoke and 18 miles south of Blacksburg in Southwest Virginia. A rural county of rolling hills and cattle farming, it’s also home to a community of musicians and craftspeople who bring an artsy touch to the region. Floyd, the county seat, hosts FloydFest, an annual music and arts festival. Floyd County has just one traffic light, but it has nearly 11,000 registered voters who cast ballots at five polling places and a central absentee precinct. 

The need for a backup plan

In the last few years, Floyd County has felt the impact of several extreme natural events. “There was an earthquake and two tornadoes in Virginia that shut down phone lines and cell towers in recent years,” Amy explains. Fortunately these events didn’t happen close to Election Day, but they made Amy and her colleagues at the Registrar’s office wonder: what if they had? 

Amy realized that Floyd County elections needed a communications backup plan. “I wanted to have a way to contact the precincts in the event something did happen here on Election Day,” she says.

Floyd County’s late Emergency Services Director, Bobby Clark, was the one who took the initiative to create a partnership with local amateur radio operators. He found hams who volunteer for the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, or RACES. 

Bobby Clark (back left) poses with RACES volunteers Jason Gallimore (back right), Tom King (front left), and Dave Larsen (front right). Photo courtesy of Amy Ingram. 

Bobby Clark (back left) poses with RACES volunteers Jason Gallimore (back right), Tom King (front left), and Dave Larsen (front right). Photo courtesy of Amy Ingram. 

Created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, RACES provides support for government agencies in times of emergency. Jason Gallimore and Dee Wallace, who are volunteers with Floyd County’s RACES, explain that local radio operators get involved with the service because they have “a passion for radio communications and electronics” and “are looking for a way to better serve their community in times of need.”

According to Amy, getting the partnership off the ground wasn’t difficult. “A few planning meetings with the RACES group and the EMS director and we were ready to go,” she recalls. Current Emergency Services Director Kevin Sowers now oversees the RACES partnership in Floyd County.

Preparation and practice

In terms of emergency planning, the most important piece of the puzzle was figuring out the steps and strategy for what should happen on Election Day if communications are interrupted. Along with Bobby, Amy came up with a workable plan for deploying RACES volunteers to Floyd County’s polling places and, if needed, for performing an emergency precinct relocation. 

And since practice is always key for emergency preparation, RACES members perform drills and practice exercises in the weeks before every election. “The RACES group likes performing the Election Day exercise,” Amy explains, because “it gives them a time to practice and to fill a real need.”

Floyd County RACES volunteers Donna Johnson, Tom King, and Dave Larsen. Photo by Amy Ingram. 

Floyd County RACES volunteers Donna Johnson, Tom King, and Dave Larsen. Photo by Amy Ingram. 

Floyd County hasn’t had to rely on RACES for communications on Election Day yet, but the partnership has already been successful as far as Amy is concerned. “It was a success from the first time we implemented the service,” she observes. “The Officers of Election feel confident knowing if they can’t reach my office by phone on Election Day, the RACES group will be arriving at the precinct to set up communication.” 

Amateurs can be indispensable 

Amy admits that she didn’t know much about amateur radio until she got exposed to RACES, but she says that getting to know this local group of volunteers has convinced her that ham radio “is still a valid service” -- even in the age of smartphones and Facebook. 

Of course, this is something hams are well aware of. “Even as technology has progressed,” explain Jason and Dee, “the importance and purpose of amateur radio communications has stayed the same. Oftentimes, amateur radio communications are the only communications that work, particularly during times of natural disaster or communication grid failures.”

In short, ham radio’s simplicity and flexibility make it work when other platforms don’t. 

Are you interested in forming a partnership with an amateur radio group in your area? ARRL, the national association for amateur radio, maintains a directory of amateur radio organizations around the country, including sections of RACES and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, or ARES. It’s a great place to begin.

In addition, Amy has also offered to speak with election officials who are considering amateur radio as a communications backup. You can reach out to her at aingram@floydcova.org.

Finally, if Amy’s story has gotten you thinking about how well your election office is prepared to communicate during an emergency, check out our latest tech tutorial: Emergency Communication Guidelines


What kinds of emergency preparation have you implemented in your election office? Share your ideas with others by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org

Thurston County, Washington creates strategies for voter registration drives

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in September 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


This year, National Voter Registration Day is September 27. On this annual holiday, thousands of groups around the country will be holding voter registration drives -- setting up at your local college, grocery store, community center, library, or street corner. Their goal? To make sure that people who want to vote this November are registered. 

Voter registration drives are something that Mary Hall, Auditor for Thurston County, Washington, knows a lot about. The Auditor’s Office and community volunteers help organize and support registration efforts throughout the county. Recently, by combining community partnerships, strategic promotion, and youth outreach, she and her team have gotten voter registration drives down to a science. 

Part of the scenic Puget Sound region, Thurston County is home to Olympia, the state capital. In the Washington State Capitol building, you’ll find a large bronze bust of George Washington with an unusually shiny nose. That’s because for locals and visitors alike, it’s a longstanding tradition to rub Washington’s nose for good luck. 

Thurston County has about 168,700 registered voters -- but don’t be surprised if this number increases in the near future. The secret isn’t good luck. It’s good planning.

Forging partnerships

Mary is proud of the high voter turnout in the county -- around 80% -- and the local rate of voter registration is on par with national figures, but still her team is always working to increase these numbers. 

Like many other government offices, however, they’re trying to do more with less. “We have limited resources to staff voter registration drives,” explains Mary, adding that “The goal of the Auditor's Office to achieve high voter registration and high voter turnout must now be done with one less elections supervisor.”

Auditor Mary Hall and IT Consultant Ray Jacoby pose for a "graphic campaign." Photo by Valerie Walston.

Auditor Mary Hall and IT Consultant Ray Jacoby pose for a "graphic campaign." Photo by Valerie Walston.

Mary found a solution to the shortfalls of staff and resources in community partnerships. “We identify community partners with similar missions,” Mary says. “The League of Women Voters and the YWCA both seek to promote voting, voter registration, and civic participation, so those partners were obvious.”

These partner organizations contribute a lot to the registration drives. “They help us be the ‘boots on the ground’ during National Voter Registration Day events,” according to Valerie, “and they also help promote events and voter registration through social channels, press releases, etc.” Once the partnerships are established, Mary and her colleagues move on to other prep work.

“We identify areas with significant foot traffic (libraries, colleges, intercity transit centers, etc.) and book voter registration drives and assign staff. Then, we build voter registration kits, consisting of voter registration forms, ‘Register to Vote Here’ signs, ‘I Registered to Vote’ stickers, ‘iRegistered’ selfie signs, and table decor including tablecloths, flags, and table flag stands.”

Table decorated with flags, stickers, pens, and forms for National Voter Registration Day. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Table decorated with flags, stickers, pens, and forms for National Voter Registration Day. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Every election official knows how popular stickers are, and materials are another area where partnerships help out. “We utilize promotional posters and stickers sent by the National Voter Registration Day group at each of our drive locations,” Mary explains. This means registration volunteers can give out swag without the expense.

Promotion is key

As important as staff and materials are, though, Mary understands that a registration event needs effective promotion to be successful. To spread the word about registration drives, the Auditor’s Office relies on graphic communications and social media campaigns. 

“The trend is now toward images and, in particular, video,” Mary says. “Social media is a perfect starting point for these graphic campaigns, and we host them on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts. In the past, we’ve had earned media on our graphics, which extends the life and visibility of them even more.” 

In other words, the promotion efforts of the election staff gain public notice, directing even more attention to the registration drives. 

Mary’s office has already gotten positive attention for its new National Voter Registration Day video. “Videos tend to do really well on Facebook,” she observes. 

With effective partnerships and innovative promotion, registration drives in Thurston County have had great results. Last year, there were about a dozen voter registration events in the county, bringing in more than 350 new voter registrations.

Civic engagement for the whole family

But because achievement can breed ambition, Mary and her staff are starting a new project this year: combining voter registration drives with a youth engagement program. 

What does that look like? It’s hard to miss. At an upcoming voter registration event, in addition to seeing friendly volunteers from the League of Women Voters and YWCA, you might meet eyes with a five-foot-tall cartoon ballot box. 

His name is Billy, and he helps get kids thinking about civic participation. Billy the Ballot Box, explains Voter Outreach Coordinator Valerie Walston, is “sad and skinny” when there’s low voter turnout, but he “grows big and strong as voters put their ballots in him.” 

While kids can’t vote, they’re still an important audience for civic outreach: they can begin to learn about elections while also encouraging the adults around them to be dutiful voters. 

Billy takes a selfie with a drop box on the campus of Evergreen State University. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

Billy takes a selfie with a drop box on the campus of Evergreen State University. Photo courtesy of Valerie Walston.

“We use Billy,” Mary says, “to promote ‘dinner table conversations’ among families with children. It is also our hope that children who like Billy will urge their parents, aunts, and uncles to return their ballots so Billy may become big and strong.” He even has his own Facebook account.

Billy has become a fixture in local school and social media outreach, but now he’ll also be making in-person appearances at registration drives. “Our voter registration events will include Billy the Ballot Box bookmarks, coloring pages, crayons, and a five-foot cardboard cutout,” Mary reports. These kid-friendly materials mean registration tables will have something for adults and children alike. 

This year, National Voter Registration Day promises to be a big day in Thurston County. And the partnerships, promotion, and youth outreach engineered by Mary and her team are sure to make it a triumph. 

On the national level, National Voter Registration Day has achieved a lot since it launched in 2012. According to Matt Singer, it’s helped to register almost 640,000 new voters, and already more than 3,600 organizations have signed up to participate this year.

Registration resources

Are you thinking about supporting registration drives in your area? We’ve got some great resources to share with you. 

You can sign up to become an National Voter Registration Day partner at this partnership sign-up page

If you’re looking for voter registration materials, check out this helpful Voter Registration Drive Kit, one of the tools in the Election Toolkit

Finally, Mary has offered to talk with election officials who want to launch voter registration drives in their own areas. You can reach out to her at TCAuditor@co.thurston.wa.us


What solutions have you found for organizing and supporting voter registration efforts in your community? How have community partnerships helped your office run great elections and connect with the public? Tell us about them by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org.

 

Wake County, North Carolina coordinates polling places with Call-Em-All

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in August 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


According to Angel Perkins, most of the poll workers in Wake County, North Carolina have been working the elections for over 30 years. She’s gotten to witness this dedication firsthand as the Recruitment Coordinator for the Board of Elections. “I believe they keep coming back because we treat them like family,” she explains. 

In her 5 years in the position, Angel has noticed that the thing that gets the Precinct Officials the most excited is hearing which precinct they’ve been assigned to. They just can’t wait to see which friends and neighbors they’ll be working with.

30 years ago, when Wake County’s veteran poll workers were still just rookies, notifying Precinct Officials about their assignments took a lot of work: election staff had to make hundreds of phone calls or prepare hundreds of mailers. Those were the options in the old days. But now, the Board of Elections sends precinct assignments much more quickly and easily with recorded voice broadcasts. 

Using Call-Em-All, a bulk texting and voice messaging platform, they’ve discovered that these broadcasts streamline a number of other communication tasks, as well. 

A challenge of coordination

Home to Raleigh, the state capitol, Wake County is the second most populous county in the state. The area is part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a hub of innovative research and industry that has helped to make Wake County one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States.

Raleigh, the county seat of Wake County. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins. 

Raleigh, the county seat of Wake County. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins. 

It’s also home to over 675,000 registered voters, and to serve them all, the Wake County Board of Elections administers 202 polling places on Election Day along with several early voting sites. More than 2,000 Precinct Officials are needed each election to staff the polls. So it’s no surprise that coordinating all of these people and places takes major organization and effort. 

Of course, this also means major time and money. “Before using Call-Em All,” Angel says, “it took a lot of hours to stay in constant contact with our officials. It consisted of team members making one-on-one contact by phone. And we would also do mass mailings, which would consume a lot of time.”

To make things better, Angel and her colleagues on the Operations/Staffing Team searched for a tool that would add speed and efficiency to their communication efforts. “We wanted to see what opportunities were out there that would allow us to communicate more effectively,” she explains. 

They found Call-Em-All and quickly decided that it was the fast, reliable solution they were looking for. 

Calling (or texting) ‘em all

Call-Em-All functions, basically, as a web-based control panel for sending recorded voice messages or texts to a lot of people at once. “The process for using it is simple,” Angel observes. “You create your contact list, record a voice or text message, and send it out at your preferred scheduled time.” 

The platform comes with plenty of options, too. For instance, you can send the same message to everyone -- which makes sense when, for instance, you have a reminder that’s relevant for the whole group -- or, you can send a specific message to a select group of users, which is perfect for sending poll workers those precinct assignments that they get so excited about.

Because of Call-Em-All’s versatility, Angel and her team use it for a number of different functions. Targeting their Precinct Officials, they send out their precinct assignment notifications, as well as reminders about trainings and important dates and alerts about inclement weather.

Staff outside the Board of Elections office, with Angel Perkins holding star. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins.

Staff outside the Board of Elections office, with Angel Perkins holding star. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins.

But it’s useful not only for providing information to the poll workers; the Operations/Staffing team also use it to collect information about the 202 polling locations that they use. “We send test calls to polling place facilities,” Angel describes, “to ensure modem lines in the precincts are working and to determine what lines need to be repaired.” 

This is yet another major coordination effort that, in Wake County, takes much less time than it used to.

Speed and peace of mind

Since she and her team have been using Call-Em-All, Angel has found that not only does it save time, but it also contributes some much needed consistency and reliability to the demanding -- and often hectic -- coordination stage of the election season. 

She especially likes the comprehensive delivery reports that come with every bulk message broadcast. “After your message is sent,” she explains, “Call-Em-All then sends you a detailed report that informs you of the customers that were reached and the numbers that were no longer in service.” 

In other words, unlike email, regular phone calls, or mailers, you get greater reassurance that your message reached the people you wanted to reach. 

Ultimately, it didn’t take long for Call-Em-All to become an important tool for the Wake County Board of Elections to help gear up for Election Day. Angel considers herself a fan. “I would say Call-Em-All is very user friendly and is a great way to reach thousands of your officials,” she says, adding, “Call-Em-All will always be a part of our process to effectively communicate with our volunteers and facilities.”

One of Wake County's dedicated Precinct officials. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins.

One of Wake County's dedicated Precinct officials. Photo courtesy of Angel Perkins.

Do you want to try Call-Em-All yourself? Check out our step-by-step instructions for the tool, which are part of the Election Toolkit. And if you have questions about how Angel and her Operations/Staffing Team in Wake County have used used this platform for voice broadcasts, you can reach out to her at Angel.Perkins@wakegov.com.


Do you have tips and tricks for coordinating poll workers and testing polling facilities in your area? Share your strategies with us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.

The Boston Election Department manages social media with Hootsuite

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in July 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Have you checked Facebook today? Did reading a Tweet make you chuckle on the bus to work this morning? Did you post pictures from your family get-together last weekend on Instagram? For a lot of us, social media have become a part of our daily habits. That’s why social media have also become an effective way to provide civic information to the public. 

Election authorities recognize there’s value in using social media, but maintaining a social outreach program takes time, effort, and coordination. To help make using social media more manageable, the Boston Election Department recently turned to Hootsuite, a web-based social network management tool, to streamline their work. 

“It made it easier to manage our various platforms,” explains Election Commissioner Kyron Owens, “because everything is located in one central location.”

Known for sweet baked beans, Fenway Park, and getting lots of snow in the wintertime, the City of Boston is also home to some 390,000 registered voters. To serve this large voting population, Boston’s Election Department employs 32 staff members and manages over 400 polling places. This fall, the department will be hosting early voting for the first time in Boston, encouraging civic participation by extending the voting period and allowing voters to cast a ballot at a location that’s convenient for them instead of an assigned polling place.

Boston's City Hall building, home to the city's Election Department

Boston's City Hall building, home to the city's Election Department

That same desire to integrate elections into the busy lives of Boston’s citizens is what’s behind the Election Department’s social media outreach efforts. Kyron, who is the Democratic Member of the Board of Election Commissioners, says that his office turns to social networks for the full gamut of community outreach. 

“We use our social media to engage with the public, make them aware of upcoming election dates, election-related deadlines (like the voter registration deadline), any events we are hosting or collaborating on, polling location hours of operation, and we use it to advertise our initiatives and support other initiatives that are related to elections,” he explains. 

The challenge

Like any form of communications outreach, however, social media campaigns require a time and energy commitment. That’s especially true if you use more than one platform. The Boston election staff uses both Facebook and Twitter, for instance. “Managing these platforms independently is a problem,” Kyron acknowledges, “because it is quite time consuming, so we were looking for a way to centralize that aspect.” 

And as if reducing maintenance time weren’t ambitious enough, the Election Department wanted to expand their reach at the same time. “We wanted to use our social media platforms to reach more people living in Boston,” says Kyron. In other words, they were looking for a way to get a greater outcome while investing less time. 

He and his staff first heard about Hootsuite from colleagues in Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology who were already using the platform to manage the City of Boston’s social media networks. Along with Board of Election Commissioners Chairman Dion Irish, Kyron tested Hootsuite to see if it could simplify their social media maintenance, too. 

Using Hootsuite

Their initial impressions of Hootsuite were positive. “Hootsuite was very user friendly and easy to learn how to use and navigate,” Kyron recalls. 

Hootsuite acts as a central control panel for your social networks, meaning that you can monitor your social media activity and view things like mentions, new followers, likes, and Retweets all from a single dashboard. The Boston Election Department connected its Facebook and Twitter profiles to Hootsuite, allowing Kyron to view both accounts without going to two different places.
 

The Boston Election Department's Hootsuite dashboard displaying 3 Twitter streams

The Boston Election Department's Hootsuite dashboard displaying 3 Twitter streams

Even more convenient is the way that Hootsuite allows you to post messages. From a single “compose” box, you can draft a message that will be sent from all of your social media accounts at the same time. “You can post to both platforms with one click!” explains Kyron. And you can choose to send your message immediately or schedule it to be sent in advance if you prefer.

Outcomes

Boston’s election staff found that consolidating their social media procedures with Hootsuite was quite beneficial. Not only did it save time, but it successfully enabled Kyron and his colleagues to expand their reach and impact, as well. 

Part of the change was easy to quantify. Kyron said that he saw an increase in the number of followers, Retweets, and likes that the department received on its Twitter and Facebook accounts. 

Even more significant, however, was the depth of engagement that they observed. “We decided it was a success,” Kyron recalls, “based on the number of interactions we have had since we started using the technology. We had an increase in questions and conversations being held on social media. It was exciting to see people take an interest.”

Boston election staff hard at work in the Boston City Hall. Photo by Kyron Owens.

Boston election staff hard at work in the Boston City Hall. Photo by Kyron Owens.

Kyron attributes these developments to the fact that Hootsuite makes social media management easier. “I believe the cause was just the increase in our activity and then also the content of our tweets,” he says. 

This makes good sense. The fact is, when it requires less effort to post to social media, you can post more frequently, making it easier to achieve the 2-3 posts per day recommended by social media engagement experts. And having the ability to post the same message to two or more platforms from the same dashboard creates greater reliability and consistency in your outreach.

Next steps

Ultimately, Hootsuite delivered the outcomes that Kyron, Dion, and the rest of the Boston Election Department had in mind. It helped staff manage the election office’s social networks more efficiently, and at the same time, it put them in a position to achieve greater audience engagement. 

And even though it’s always good to save staff time and energy, it’s that second goal that’s especially important. Asked about what he sees as the biggest benefit of Hootsuite, Kyron replied, “the ability to use this platform to be able to expand your outreach efforts in the community that you serve.”

If you’d like to get started with using Hootsuite, our new tech tutorial on the topic is a great place to begin. In addition, Kyron has volunteered to speak with other election officials curious about his experiences using the program in Boston. You can reach out to him at kyron.owens@boston.gov.

“The results of the technology were very good and positive,” he concludes. “Anyone who is curious about this technology I would encourage them to test it out because I believe they will find it to be beneficial.”


What inventive methods has your election office developed for managing social media? We’d love to share your success story. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org and share your social media management strategies.

Sussex County, New Jersey creates videos to help train poll workers

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in March 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Effectively training poll workers is one of the most important things that a local election office can do to ensure that elections are run smoothly. But it’s also one of the most challenging. In particular, it’s one thing to train your poll workers, but it’s quite another thing to keep them trained. 

In Sussex County, New Jersey, administrator Marge Lake McCabe observed this dilemma. “We found that our poll workers do a great job at the Primary Election (right after training),” she explains, “but they struggle during the General Election.” In response to this challenge, Marge and her staff developed a smart way to cope: producing “refresher” training videos for poll workers.

Last month, the videos earned the praise of the Election Assistance Commission, which posted a link to the videos on the agency’s Facebook account, saying, “What a great idea -- well done, Sussex County!”

EAC Facebook post praising Sussex County’s training videos

EAC Facebook post praising Sussex County’s training videos

Located halfway in between Scranton, PA and New York City, Sussex County is the northernmost county in the state of New Jersey. The county is home to 99,146 registered voters and has an election staff of 4 full timers and 1 part timer, along with additional technical support staff. 

It’s a county with a distinctive topography, containing both the point of highest elevation -- in High Point State Park -- and the deepest point in the state, which is located in the historic Sterling Hills Mine in the borough of Ogdensburg. And although the world famous Jersey Devil is reputed to prowl the southern parts of New Jersey, Sussex County is home to some cryptids of its own: according to local lore, sea monsters have resided in Lake Hopatcong for centuries. 

But while Sussex County’s landscape and wildlife may be distinctive, the challenges it faces regarding poll worker education are familiar to election officials everywhere.

The problem

The fact is, poll worker training is a big job, and because there’s so much work involved, many election offices are only able to train once a year. In Sussex County, the Board of Elections limits its training classes to no more than 20 workers each, and it ends up holding over 40 classes every spring. “It’s exhausting,” Marge admits. “We realized there is no way we could train the poll workers before each election.” 

Marge Lake McCabe leads a poll worker training class. Photo by Kimberly Sidoti.

Marge Lake McCabe leads a poll worker training class. Photo by Kimberly Sidoti.

But at the same time, there seemed to be a need for additional training. In Sussex County (and in every other county, parish, and municipality), poll workers have busy, full lives, and even the most conscientious workers won’t remember every single aspect of running a polling place months after their training ended.

During the fall election, according to Marge, workers had difficulty remembering procedural issues -- things like filling out paperwork properly, issuing provisional ballots, and processing ballots on the electronic voting machines.

The Sussex County Board believed that, to fix the problem, workers just needed to be shown how to do these things again. Video seemed like the right approach for two reasons. For one thing, it would provide a visual illustration of what to do. “We thought that seeing what had to be done on video would be the most effective method to remind them of their responsibilities,” Marge says. In addition, a second benefit of video is flexibility: instead of coming to a training location on a set schedule, poll workers could watch the videos at their own convenience.

Producing the videos 

The first stage in creating the videos was planning their content. To make the task manageable for both the people producing the videos and the people watching them, Marge wanted to limit their number to 10. Led by deputy administrator Ellen Griffiths, the staff made a list of the topics that they felt would be most important to cover, and then they narrowed them down. “There are so many topics that it was difficult to narrow it down to 10,” Marge acknowledges, “but we thought that we could add more in the future.”

Judy Lynch, Dorleen Donahue, and Ellen Griffiths compose scripts for the videos. Photo by Marge McCabe.

Judy Lynch, Dorleen Donahue, and Ellen Griffiths compose scripts for the videos. Photo by Marge McCabe.

Once topics were selected, the Board created scripts for the videos. They arranged to film the videos in their warehouse in an area that they set up to look like a polling place, and for actors, they used a staff member as well as poll workers who graciously volunteered to participate in exchange for a shot at election-video stardom. 

Then, production began. Thor Carlson, the Sussex County website manager, handled the technical aspects of making the videos. He was responsible for all of the video and audio capturing and subsequent editing. 

For filming, Thor used a Nikon D3200 camera (less than $400.00 on Amazon) mounted on a tripod. The voiceovers were recorded with a USB headset with an attached microphone, and audio recording and editing was done with Audacity, an open-source audio platform. To edit the videos, Thor used Adobe Premiere Pro CC, which allowed him to edit the raw video, add voiceovers, and insert additional visual close-ups and animation where it would enhance the videos.

Filming and editing took some time, but not as much as you might think. “Video recording took place over a four or five day period,” Thor says, while “post-production editing took about three weeks.” 

Marge admits she was initially unsure about the technical requirements for making videos, but in the end, they weren’t prohibitive. “When we first thought of the video idea,” she says, “we were prepared to reach out to the local college and technical school for assistance. As it turns out, our webmaster was highly qualified and very willing, and even learned some new video techniques during the process.”

Web manager Thor Carlson flanked by Ellen and Marge. Photo by John Williams.

Web manager Thor Carlson flanked by Ellen and Marge. Photo by John Williams.

Of course, while Thor proved a highly capable video producer for the Sussex Board, Marge’s idea about working with a college or trade school is a good one for election offices who may not have a Thor of their own. 

Once the videos were edited, Marge and Ellen signed off on them one at a time, and they began showing them to friends, colleagues, and poll workers to get reactions.

Outcomes

The Sussex Board is going to have to wait a few months to see the direct impact of the videos on the General Election, but in the meantime, responses have been overwhelmingly positive. 

“They came out so well,” Marge explains, “that we are using them during poll worker training in April.” In other words, although the videos were originally intended as “refreshers,” the videos have been shown to have great potential during regular training, too. 

Screenshot from a Sussex County training video demonstrating how poll workers should unpack voting equipment

Screenshot from a Sussex County training video demonstrating how poll workers should unpack voting equipment

In particular, the Board has been pleased with the way that video can help to visually illustrate important processes. For instance, even with a small training class, it’s hard to provide a close-up view of a machine or an affidavit to a whole group of people. But video makes that easy. 

Ever since trainer Judy Smith began incorporating the videos in the training process, Marge says, the staff has discovered that “poll workers are picking up information they would usually miss from our standard teaching format.”

Judy is screening the videos during in-person training, and in addition, Thor created a YouTube channel to host them and make them public. This makes it possible for poll workers to access them at their own convenience -- whenever and wherever they want. “And since the videos are now on YouTube,” Marge jokes, “even if they’re on the beach in August they can go online and see how to process a provisional ballot.” 

It’s not yet clear whether or not the videos are going to become popular viewing on the Jersey Shore this summer, but they’ve already made a positive impact.

For one thing, the videos have earned high praise from the Election Assistance Commission. Calling them “pretty excellent,” the EAC posted the videos on the agency’s Facebook page as part of its #beready16 campaign.

What’s more, back in Sussex County, Marge says that producing the videos has helped her and her staff to reform and streamline the work of their office. "I think the greatest thing we learned through this endeavor," she says, "is how to simplify our own processes. When you look at every little thing you do, and hone it down to the smallest detail, you get to clean up your procedures."

In short, the videos have already proven valuable for everyone involved in administering elections in Sussex County. Poll workers are benefiting from the enhanced training. Thor cultivated new video production skills. And Marge, Ellen, and the rest of her staff were able to improve not only their training, but their other functions, as well.

Next steps

Video production might seem intimidating, but the experience of Sussex County shows it might be less complicated than you think. “It was not as hard as we anticipated,” Marge admits. 

Marge and Thor have kindly offered to speak with anyone who has questions about either the administrative or technical aspects of producing poll worker training videos. You can reach out to Marge at mmccabe@sussex.nj.us or Thor at tcarlson@sussex.nj.us.

Also, if training and managing poll workers in 2016 is something that’s on your mind, be sure to check out this upcoming webisode hosted by the Election Assistance Commission, to be published in April. In the webisode you’ll hear about other innovations for dealing with the challenges of poll worker training.


What good ideas has your election office used for providing training “refreshers” to your poll workers? If you’ve developed good strategies of your own, we’d love to hear about them! Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org and describe your training techniques.

Weber County, Utah uses Google Voice to manage poll worker communication

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in February 2016. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


The morning of Election Day is a busy time for every election administrator. As poll workers arrive at the polling place, set up equipment, and prepare to open the polls, questions inevitably surface. Coordinating poll workers and responding to their needs ends up pulling administrators in many different directions all at once. 

In response to this common issue, Ryan Cowley, Elections Director for Weber County, Utah, searched for a solution, and he found it in Google Voice, a tool that provides his office with an efficient, streamlined way to communicate with poll workers throughout the county. 

In just a short time, Google Voice has already made Election Day less of a headache in Weber County. “Poll workers loved that we were able to respond in a timely manner,” explains County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch. “And we never got overwhelmed by voice mails and phone calls.”

Located about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, Weber County provides a snapshot of the entire state of Utah. It borders the Great Salt Lake to the West. Its county seat, Ogden, is one of Utah’s biggest cities and has a rich history as a bustling railroad town. 

Downtown Ogden, Utah at night. Photo by Kevin Dilley.

Downtown Ogden, Utah at night. Photo by Kevin Dilley.

The backdrop for Ogden is the beautiful Wasatch mountain range, and the eastern part of Weber County is home to the rugged Upper Valley region, home to few residents and fewer roads. The county population stands at about 240,000 people, of whom 114,187 are registered voters. In the last presidential election in 2012, Weber County had 63 polling places, but that number has dropped sharply as the state transitions to vote by mail. This year, there will be just 9 polling places, along with 11 drop-off locations.

The challenge

Coordinating poll workers is a challenge that’s been around for a while, and Weber County election staff tried several different approaches to dealing with it over the years. The portability of cell phones was a big step forward compared to the older land lines, but even using cell phones had its problems.

As he traveled around from polling place to polling place on Election Day with his cell phone, Ryan got bombarded with calls while his poll workers felt neglected.

"I would get caught in an endless cycle of missed call, voice mail, return call, more missed calls, more voice mails, more calls to return, and could never get caught up."

Eventually the office implemented texting as a way to communicate with poll workers, and that method worked well apart from two big drawbacks. First, Ryan wasn’t able to deal with text messages while driving. And second, all of the messages from poll workers ended up only on his phone, where no other election staff could access them or respond.

Ryan and his fellow election administrators knew that they needed a more systematic approach to texting. “We wanted to find some text management software, Ryan explains, “that would allow us to send and receive text messages through a web portal where more than one person could see it.” The solution was Google Voice.

Using Google Voice

Google Voice is sort of a cross between texting on your phone and using Gmail, which is Google’s free email provider and one of the most popular email platforms in the world. In the weeks prior to an election, Weber County election staff set up a Google Voice account, also choosing a telephone number for the election office that was local and would be easy to remember.

At poll worker training, each worker was asked to text the number and provide their name, job position, and location. Administrators then added each number as a contact in Google Voice, so that it would be immediately clear who was texting and from where.

Smartphone screenshot showing an example of texting poll workers using Google Voice

Smartphone screenshot showing an example of texting poll workers using Google Voice

Once the Voice account it set up and the poll workers have been added as contacts, using the platform is extremely quick and easy. On Election Day, poll workers text the office, and all of their messages go into a central inbox -- much like a normal email inbox -- where all of the election administrators can see it and respond to it.

Because of this inbox feature, dealing with text messages is as easy as managing email. Plus, responding to text messages using a regular computer keyboard makes the process much faster and easier than typing with thumbs on a phone. Once each poll worker question is answered, the administrator archives the message thread so that the inbox contains only new messages.

Outcomes

Google Voice proved a great solution for dealing with poll worker questions. Instead of feeling neglected, election workers said they “absolutely loved the texting option,” and they told Ryan and Ricky “the communication from the county is great!”

In addition to helping with questions, they've found that Google Voice is a great tool for providing alerts and reminders to all poll workers at once. “Think of how long it takes to have a two-minute phone call with every one of your polling places!” Ryan says. Sending a quick text message to everyone all at once is so much simpler and easier.

"Our poll workers raved about it and our staff liked that you could be talking to 3 or 4 poll workers at the same time without being tied up on the phone."

The local election staff also enjoys the hotline feature of Google Voice. This allows poll workers who have an especially urgent problem to call in, and the account is set up so that all the phones in the office ring simultaneously. If Ryan or another administrator leave the office, they can even make it so that the hotline is directed to their cell phone, as well. The hotline provides another layer of responsiveness.

Ryan Cowley and Ricky Hatch "campaigning." Photo courtesy of Ricky Hatch.

Ryan Cowley and Ricky Hatch "campaigning." Photo courtesy of Ricky Hatch.

As a simple and free approach to one of the most common issues of election administration, Google Voice could be an attractive communication tool for any election office. If you have questions about how to use it, you can email Ricky Hatch at rhatch@co.weber.ut.us or Ryan Cowley at rcowley@co.weber.ut.us


Does your office have its own smart way to deal with poll worker communication? If so, let us know! Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org and tell us your story. 

Hardin County, Iowa uses Google Sheets to report results on election night

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in November 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Located in central Iowa -- halfway between the cities of Waterloo and Fort Dodge -- lies Hardin County. One of the Tuskegee Airmen hailed from here, and today the area serves as a major source of ethanol. More famously, much of the 1996 tornado blockbuster Twister was filmed in Hardin County, whose flat, Midwestern landscape provided the perfect backdrop for the cyclone drama. 

Although it might not exactly be the stuff of Hollywood cinema, the Hardin County Auditor’s office has a story of its own to tell. Jessica Lara -- who has served as County Auditor since September 2013 and was Deputy Auditor for 4 years prior to that -- is proud of the solution that her office has developed for reporting election night results. 

The Hardin County courthouse with local citizens relaxing in the lawn. Photo by Micah Cutler.

The Hardin County courthouse with local citizens relaxing in the lawn. Photo by Micah Cutler.

Hardin County is a fairly small election jurisdiction, with 11,840 registered voters and a range of between 9 and 14 precincts, depending on the type of election. The Auditor’s office has 2 full-time election staff members and 3 backup workers who assist with things like absentee voting and phone inquiries. 

But whether a jurisdiction is large or small, pushing election night results out to the public after the polls close is stressful work. Voters want to see the impact of their participation. Candidates are eager to see their prospects for victory. And local media representatives want facts for the election stories that they’re working on. Because it’s an important and demanding task, election officials want to make sure they get it done quickly and get it done right. 

And a few years ago, administrators in Hardin County decided that the old way of reporting election night results just wasn’t cutting it anymore. 

"We find that in the information age,” Jessica explains, “voters are wanting results as soon as polls close."

"We needed a method to report results that would be accurate yet timely. [In the past] [o]ur tabulating software would require all precincts [to] deliver the memory cards to our central location before results could be tallied and printed on reports. We needed something faster that did not involve the delay in hand delivering the results cards. This is how we developed our Election Results spreadsheet.”

Jessica Lara shows off her office's spreadsheet. Photo by Micah Cutler.

Jessica Lara shows off her office's spreadsheet. Photo by Micah Cutler.

How it works

The spreadsheet that Hardin County produced is built on familiar and free platforms: Google Docs and Google Sheets, both of which are part of Google’s web-based office suite. Jessica and her staff have used the spreadsheet to report election night results for about 6 years, and they love the fact that the platform is free, fast, and easy to use. 

The steps are simple, as Jessica explains: “On election night, once the polls close, the tabulators print paper results at each of our polling locations. The chairperson at each location then phones in the results to the Auditor’s office (Commissioner of Elections) and the information for each race including over/under and total number of voters. We use these numbers to manually proof that the numbers were heard and written down accurately. One employee then enters the results into the spreadsheet. Google Docs is continually updated every two to four minutes, so the results are nearly immediate in release.”

In addition to speeding things up, using Google Sheets allows Hardin County to publish election night results with “a more polished look,” explains IT/GIS Director Micah Cutler, who developed the spreadsheet format. Micah says that election staff experimented with various color schemes for the spreadsheet -- including a patriotic red, white, and blue look -- but ultimately settled on a more generic theme that was easy to read and that avoided any partisan colors. 

The election results spreadsheet in action

The election results spreadsheet in action

It’s not foolproof

Although using Google Sheets has made results reporting much faster and easier than before in Hardin County, Jessica says that great care still needs to be taken in the reporting process. 

For instance, she stresses that human error still has the potential to foul things up. She shared an experience when a mistake was made due to data entry. A candidate for office received 101 votes, but an election staff member just entered “1” into the spreadsheet. This meant that, for a short time, the wrong candidate appeared to be the winner of the race. The problem was spotted and corrected within 10 minutes, Jessica explains, but still, a few media outlets had already picked up the wrong information. Moving forward, the elections staff resolved to have just one dedicated staff member do data entry, thus reducing the chance of errors or accidental deletions. Results figures are now triple checked for accuracy. 

They also needed to figure out how to make their spreadsheets accommodate write-in candidates. To deal with this problem, they now make sure their spreadsheets have blank columns that can be used for write-ins, and when any write-in candidate earns at least 5% of the vote, the candidate’s name is added to the spreadsheet. Candidates are added and dropped as results hover near that 5% threshold. 

For the most part, working with Google Sheets requires the same kind of caution and attention to detail that results reporting normally demands. And as always, Jessica emphasizes, it’s important to include a “unofficial results” disclaimer until canvassing can be done to verify results officially.

Great results

Jessica and Micah are understandably proud of the platform they developed. Whereas some of the surrounding counties in Iowa can take as much as 2 hours to provide election results, Jessica says, Hardin County has become known for its quick reporting. 

"Two years ago,” she says with pride, “we were able to report results to the public in less than 11 minutes after the polls closed. We had reporters from radio stations that called to thank us for being so prompt!"

According to Jessica, this isn’t the first time that Hardin County has been recognized for running elections with innovation and boldness. Local lore remembers the election of 1863, when the first election in Jackson Township was held in an old saw mill, and every voter who cast a ballot was entitled to a drink from a keg of genuine whisky. The booze may no longer flow at the polls, but local elections continue to draw notice. 

Because it’s free, fast, and simple, the Google office suite has the potential to be a great solution to the headache that election night results can often cause. If you have questions about how using the Google spreadsheet has impacted the work of the Auditor’s office in Hardin County, email Jessica at jlara@hardincountyia.gov. With questions about the design and technical specifications of the spreadsheet, get in touch with Micah at mcutler@hardincountyia.gov.


Do you have any special method for publishing election night results that you’d like to tell us about? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org and share your experience. 

 

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners uses partnerships to recruit young poll workers

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in October 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Chicago is a city of big shoulders, deep-dish pizza, and buildings that scrape the sky. Chicago has 1.42 million registered voters and 2,069 Election Day polling places. To staff a general election, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners hires over 14,000 poll workers. 

Student poll workers pose with a touchscreen voting machine. Photo by Paulina Mysliwiec.

Student poll workers pose with a touchscreen voting machine. Photo by Paulina Mysliwiec.

In this month’s newsletter we highlight the Board’s community partnerships that benefit local students, the election office, and Chicago voters. Learn about how they recruit student poll workers who can troubleshoot technology and offer language assistance on Election Day.

The Chairman's greatest source of pride

"Chicago leads the nation with the number [about 4,000] of young people staffing our polling places every single election. No other jurisdiction even comes close," said Chicago Election Board Chairman Langdon D. Neal. "The benefits far outweigh any costs."

"Overall, our student judges have demonstrated technological savvy. That means fewer calls for technicians on Election Day. That means faster results reporting on Election Night," Neal said. "In most elections, we have results reported from more than 90% of our precincts before the 10:00 news."
 
"There's another benefit: being fully staffed. Many jurisdictions scramble to recruit and train poll workers," Neal said. "Election officials across the country ask us how we do it. It's simple. We partner with Mikva Challenge and with all of the history and social studies teachers in our high schools."

"Most important is what this means for the long-term health of the franchise. There is no better lesson in democracy than managing a polling place," Neal said.

"I often say we're giving new meaning to 'early and often.' We engage our students early -- and expect they'll be back often in their lives. This program is my greatest source of pride."

Technology and elections

In many states, poll workers directly impact the voting experience. A poll worker can decide if a voter’s ID is valid, if a person must vote provisionally, and if they receive the correct ballot style.

From online voter registration to electronic poll books, technology plays an important role on Election Day. Subsequently, the need for technical abilities among poll workers is increasing. Not only are poll worker training programs becoming more rigorous, including testing and evaluations, but recruitment efforts are also evolving. In the interest of getting more tech savvy poll workers, both the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and the Election Assistance Commission suggest local election offices recruit students to work on Election Day.

In addition to tech skills, students bring a fresh outlook to the voting process and they may also have communication skills that are valuable to voters.

Speaking the same language

College and high school students who have immigrant family members often speak languages other than English at home, making them prime candidates for bilingual and multilingual election judge positions. They can serve as a trusted liaison between limited English proficiency communities and the election office. 

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires election offices that qualify to provide language assistance to minority groups. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners’ website is translated into five languages -- English, Spanish, Polish, Chinese, and Hindi -- and the office employs full-time community coordinators who are responsible for language translation and community outreach. 

One way to increase a voter’s confidence in the voting process on Election Day -- especially a new voter -- is for poll workers to share voting information in a language that is familiar to the voter. In addition to the five languages found on the Board’s website, the election office also recruits bilingual election judges who speak Gujarati and Urdu. And in Chicago voting locations where there may not be a judge who offers language assistance, the election signage, touch-screen ballots and audio ballots are offered in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi.

Civics is a lifestyle

Recruiting student poll workers is challenging. Young people are busy with academics, sports, work, romance, family, and more. But by partnering with local non-profit organizations and teachers, election offices can build strategic relationships in the community and target civically engaged students.

An election staff member signs up a future student poll worker at a recruitment event. Photo by Paulina Mysliwiec.

An election staff member signs up a future student poll worker at a recruitment event. Photo by Paulina Mysliwiec.

For eight years, the Chicago Election Board has led the nation in assigning high school students to serve as election judges. Through a partnership with Mikva Challenge, more than 1,700 students have worked in each citywide election. Mikva Challenge is a nonpartisan program based in Chicago that promotes youth participation in civics and politics.

Youth involvement in the election process has even gained media attention. You can hear about the experience of one student election judge whose story was broadcast on WBEZ.

Last fall the Board partnered with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (CLC) to recruit college and university students to serve as election judges. A new CLC study, featured in electionLine, found that the Chicago Election Board now also leads the way in the use of college poll workers. 

As voting locations integrate more and more technology and our nation’s population grows increasingly diverse, student poll worker programs will continue to strengthen the pool of poll workers. Even better, the programs serve as a catalyst for civic participation that can last a lifetime. 

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is able to recruit and retain student election judges because of its community outreach and partnerships with local stakeholders.


What kinds of programs does your election office have to recruit young poll workers? How do you keep your election workers prepared for changes in technology and legislation? Let us know at kurt@techandciviclife.org. We want to feature your story!

Wise County, Virginia recruits poll workers with Facebook posts

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in September 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Wise County is tucked in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia, about 100 miles northeast of Knoxville, TN. It is the home of the official outdoor drama of the Commonwealth, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which tells the story of two feuding families coping with social and economic change in a Virginia mountain community.

Wise County’s registered voter population fluctuates between 23,000 and 24,000. The Office of General Register is staffed by one full-time Registrar, one full-time Assistant Registrar, and one part-time Assistant Registrar. Wise County has 12 precincts and 12 Election Day polling places, along with a Central Absentee Precinct (CAP) for all absentee voters.

Meeting people where they are

Allison J. Robbins is the Registrar for Wise County, and recently she’s been using Facebook as a tool to recruit poll workers. 

Allison J. Robbins sitting at her office desk. Photo courtesy of Allison J. Robbins.

Allison J. Robbins sitting at her office desk. Photo courtesy of Allison J. Robbins.

“I believe there are civic-minded citizens in our communities who are interested in serving as poll workers. Using Facebook to recruit poll workers gives election officials another tool to reach out to those citizens.”

Facebook is one of the most popular websites in the world. As of March 2015, it had over 1 billion active users. This month’s spotlight story, along with our Facebook Boosted Post step-by-step tech tutorial, outlines why and how an election office might boost posts on Facebook. 

Boosting Facebook posts

As far as online ad campaigns go, it was a simple process in Wise County. Allison created a post on Facebook and included the link to their poll worker sign-up form in the text of the post. She then boosted the post and narrowed the target audience to Wise County. 

Screenshot of Facebook ad recruiting poll workers using the iconic "I want you" Uncle Sam imagery

Screenshot of Facebook ad recruiting poll workers using the iconic "I want you" Uncle Sam imagery

The numbers

  • $40 budget
  • 2-week duration
  • Over 10,000 people reached
  • 27 online and 6 offline responses

Once the post was live, people showed interest by sharing the post, and 27 people submitted responses through the online form. After Allison and her staff received the responses, they contacted the interested citizens using the email address or phone number they provided. Staff verified their eligibility, gave them their training date, and assigned them to a precinct on Election Day. Thanks to the boosted Facebook post, Wise County was able to fill all of their poll worker vacancies in November 2014.

Next steps

Because of its ease of use, affordability, and positive results, boosting Facebook posts has significant potential for local election offices. Since last year’s ad campaign was so successful, Wise County plans to promote poll worker recruitment and other election events on Facebook throughout the year.

If you want to learn more about Wise County Registrar’s use of Facebook or their poll worker recruitment efforts, contact Allison J. Robbins at registrar@wisecounty.gov.

And you can visit the Center for Technology and Civic Life website to see more Facebook tech tutorials, including how to get started on Facebook and an example of a Facebook comment policy.


What do you think is the most effective way to recruit election workers in your jurisdiction? Has your election office developed new tools or programs that you’re really proud of? We want to hear from you. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.

Guilford County, North Carolina builds a communication portal with Google apps

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in May 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Guilford County is the third most populous county in North Carolina. The Guilford County Board of Elections has a team of 16 employees who serve nearly 335,000 voters. On Election Day, they manage 165 polling places and between 600 and 1,000 poll workers. During the early voting period, they staff between 7 and 22 early voting sites with up to 420 seasonal election workers. Guilford County is the only county in North Carolina with two election offices -- one in Greensboro (the county seat) and one in High Point.

Beyond the election office busy signal

During the 2011 early voting period, Deputy Director Tim Tsujii noticed their office needed a way to stay in touch with election workers when their office phone lines were busy. Tim used instant messaging apps with his friends and family, so he decided to build an online communication portal for election workers using the same technology. 

Instant communication with election workers

The Guilford County election office designed an online system that can:

  • Communicate with election workers when the phone lines are tied up.
  • Track wait times at voting locations.
  • Collect data for auditing and evaluation.
  • Provide additional resources to improve the elections process.

Tim and his team leveraged free Google tools, including Gmail, Google Documents, and Google Sites, to create an online system to communicate with their election workers. The apps are web-based, which means election workers can access them on electronic poll book laptops when connected to the Internet. 

Introducing Guilford Elections Application Resources (GEAR) 

GEAR is an online portal for managing communication between the Guilford County election office, roving tech staff, and workers who are stationed at voting locations throughout the county.

Screenshot of GEAR homepage menu showing several iconic menu items

Screenshot of GEAR homepage menu showing several iconic menu items

Send and receive election data

The Guilford County election office collects real-time election data directly from the early voting locations so they are able to quickly identify needs and areas of improvement for election workers. To inform their allocation of election personnel and inventory, they track specific polling place activities, including number of curbside voters, provisional ballots issued, and supplies. The chat module makes troubleshooting more efficient at the early voting locations because election staff can immediately walk the election workers through solutions. 

"By reviewing the chat history from GChat, Guilford County election staff can identify frequently asked questions and requests, which they use to improve their election worker training curriculum."

Benefits of using Google apps for GEAR

  • Free
  • Web-based: use it anywhere at any time with an Internet connection.
  • Secure: password protected login and permission required to share documents.
  • Cloud-based: ample data storage.
  • Compatible with Microsoft Office: easily export data to Microsoft products like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.
  • User-friendly: no coding skills required to create sites or forms. Google offers free templates and app scripts that can automate certain tasks, such as a mileage calculator for rovers.

Implementing GEAR is not without challenges. Tim and his team must consider that some election workers have limited knowledge of the Google apps. Workers with less experience on computers may pass responsibilities to another person, complicating the evaluation and accountability process. There is also the possibility of losing Internet connectivity and the Google server becoming unresponsive, which interrupts communication.

However, after launching GEAR, the Guilford County Board of Elections observed a reduction in the number of calls to their roving technical support staff. They have also seen an increase in election worker confidence and productivity because workers have a “safety net” that keeps them in constant contact with the election office. 

"GEAR offers Guilford County a way to communicate instantly with election workers, collect data from voting locations, and provide immediate access to resources and important forms when election workers need them."

Interested in learning more? Take GEAR for a test drive by visiting the GEAR early vote demo website


How is your election office using technology to improve elections in your jurisdiction? ELECTricity wants to feature your story. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.

Contra Costa County, California explores digital strategies for community engagement

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in April 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Contra Costa County is in the northern part of the East Bay of California, near San Francisco. The Contra Costa County Elections Division serves over 524,000 voters and has 32 full-time employees. Its name in Spanish means “opposite coast.” Its county seat, Martinez, is the birthplace of the martini. (There is some dispute about this fact -- but not among the locals.)
 

Staff members of Contra Costa's Civic Engagement and Education program register voters at a local farmers' market. Photo courtesy of Paul Burgarino and Contra Costa County.

Staff members of Contra Costa's Civic Engagement and Education program register voters at a local farmers' market. Photo courtesy of Paul Burgarino and Contra Costa County.

County Clerk-Registrar-Recorder Joe Canciamilla took office in April 2013. He wanted to create an outreach program that increased access to information, engaged the community, and encouraged young people to see the value and excitement in civic life. The weekend before election staff Lori Haywood and Paul Burgarino started to work on the Civic Engagement and Education Program in August 2014, an earthquake happened. Over time, they have realized that it’s the daily, tiny movements under the surface that can create a seismic impact on civic participation.

Being social

One of their first goals was to create a strong social media presence. They created a new Facebook page, Engage Contra Costa, along with Twitter and Instagram accounts. Facebook has been their most successful social media platform. They have 432 fans with a goal of reaching 1000 fans. They engage their community on Facebook by:

  • Posting original memes, or fun graphics, that include important civic information
  • Sharing instructional videos about the voting process
  • Posting pictures that highlight new programs, such as ballot drop-off boxes at city halls
  • Distributing content from national organizations like Rock the Vote
Facebook meme tying local elections to baseball season created by Contra Costa election staff. Photo courtesy of Paul Burgarino and Contra Costa County.

Facebook meme tying local elections to baseball season created by Contra Costa election staff. Photo courtesy of Paul Burgarino and Contra Costa County.

“We see social media as a way to highlight events and new programs in the community, and we really think outside the box in how we present information,” Paul says. “When there’s something like the 'color of the dress' picture that floods social media, we think about how we might take that opportunity to get people civically involved."

Quick tip: Is your election office interested in setting up a Facebook Page to engage your community? Learn more about getting started on Facebook with ELECTricity's Facebook tech tutorial. And if this is your first social media account, we recommend that you also create a social media policy to help ensure that your social media accounts are professionally maintained and long lasting. Check out the Portage County Board of Elections's social media policy as an example.

New ways to engage the community

The Contra Costa election staff is also using technology to increase civic engagement by creating instructional videos. For example, the county is administering two elections simultaneously next month, and some voters within a district will receive two separate ballots in the mail. Election staff are asking voters to return mail ballots according to a color-matching system. Just this month, they created a short video and shared it on Facebook. The video, in less than one minute, helps Contra Costa voters understand the special color-matching process.

An instructional video created by Contra Costa election staff that shows a family learning about different ballots. Video courtesy of Paul Burgarino and Contra Costa County.

Quick tip: Images tell stories, capture people’s attention, and fuel engagement. By sharing a picture on Facebook, rather than just text, your post might appear higher in someone’s Facebook feed. However, this may be changing. In addition to photos, now videos are becoming increasingly popular on Facebook. According to the Facebook blog, in one year the number of video posts per Facebook user has increased by 94% in the U.S. If your office is active on Facebook, consider integrating more videos into your posts to expand the reach of your civic content.

For more information about the Contra Costa Civic Engagement and Education Program, contact Paul Burgarino via email at Paul.Burgarino@vote.cccounty.us


How are you using technology to improve elections in your jurisdiction? Let us know about it by emailing us at kurt@techandciviclife.org. We want to feature your work!

Easton, Massachusetts streamlines its work by using Excel

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in March 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


The Town of Easton is located 30 minutes from Boston and 45 minutes from Cape Cod. Easton is the proud hometown of Jim Craig, the goaltender who led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to an Olympic gold medal, also known as the Miracle on Ice.

Easton has over 15,500 registered voters who are served by three full-time staff, 30 poll workers, and three volunteer registrars. On Election Day, residents in the town’s six precincts all vote in just one location at the high school gymnasium.

Easton's consolidated polling place at high school gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Gillis.

Easton's consolidated polling place at high school gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Gillis.

Jeremy Gillis is the Easton Town Clerk. In addition to enjoying hockey, he’s a huge fan of Excel. Jeremy and his team use spreadsheets to help manage the entire election process in Easton. He creates one Excel file for each election and then adds individual tabs for detailed information. The team collects data on everything election related, including: 

  • Candidate information
  • Voting lists
  • Absentee voters
  • Election costs
  • Hourly voter turnout
  • Poll worker payroll
  • Election results

Track election trends with Excel

The Town Clerk's office also records election expenses in Excel in order to track the exact costs of an election. Using their election budget spreadsheets, they are later able to justify funding requests at the Easton town meetings.

View a quick example on using the SUM function to total a poll worker budget.

By identifying historical election data trends in a customizable format like Excel, Jeremy can make informed decisions about resources for an upcoming election.

“Excel can take some of the gut feelings that all election administrators experience and turn them into facts,” Jeremy explains.

Excel streamlines election data

Meaningful election data can add value to the local budget process, boost community engagement, and contribute to historical archives. By publishing data in a spreadsheet that people and machines can find, sort, and share, the public can better understand and engage in the election process.

In one Election Night spreadsheet, Jeremy uses 258 Excel formulas to calculate results for three ballots, 22 races, 4 questions, and 38 candidates!

A printed Excel spreadsheet with sample ballots. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Gillis.

A printed Excel spreadsheet with sample ballots. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Gillis.

For information about election data in the Town of Easton, contact Jeremy at jgillis@easton.ma.us. You can also follow Jeremy on Twitter

Interested in learning more about Excel? Check out our quick lessons on Excel -- including AVERAGE, CONCATENATE, and PivotTables -- in ELECTricity’s Tech Tutorials.


How are you making elections better in your community? We want to feature your jurisdiction. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org

 

Pierce County, Washington makes voting convenient with ballot drop boxes

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in February 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!


Pierce County, Washington is the second largest county in the state. Pierce County covers 1,679 square miles, from sea level to the top of Mt. Rainier at 14,411 ft. The county’s residents live on islands, in cities, and at the base of the mountain. The Pierce County seat is Tacoma.

A ballot drop box located at a fire station in Orting, Washington. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

A ballot drop box located at a fire station in Orting, Washington. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

The Pierce County Auditor’s office serves the county’s over 440,000 registered voters. The office has 13 full-time staff and approximately 250 part-time election workers who perform ballot pick-up, ballot processing, and voting center duties. They have 29, going on 30, drop boxes located throughout the county. In 2014 the Pierce County Auditor was recognized with the Election Center Guardian Award for their team’s successful ballot drop box program.

Pierce County ballot drop box best practices:

  • Design a large, fireproof box
  • Optimize voter convenience by placing boxes in common public spaces
  • Raise awareness via contests and voter education, both online and offline
  • Develop a trackable ballot pickup protocol

No stamp required

Since becoming an all vote-by-mail jurisdiction in 2011, Pierce County has seen a significant increase in the number of ballots deposited at their ballot drop boxes. In the 2014 General Election, 118,971 of the 220,827 Pierce County ballots cast, or 53.9%, were returned at a drop box. 

A voter inserts a ballot into one of Pierce County's drop off boxes. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

A voter inserts a ballot into one of Pierce County's drop off boxes. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Why are ballot drop boxes so popular? Voters like convenient choices. Pierce County voters can mail their ballot, drop their ballot at a drop box, or vote in-person at one of four Voting Centers. Voters enjoy the advantages of drop boxes, which are open 24/7 and do not require a stamp. 

More than a big metal can

Discovering the best way to manage the boxes has been a learning experience. Through their experience Pierce County learned that small drop boxes, which can fill up quickly, are problematic. By investing in larger boxes, the program can continue to grow in popularity. To prevent a fire from destroying ballots inside the drop box, each box is outfitted with fire suppression canisters. Before installation, the Auditor asked a local fire department to test ballot drop boxes, with and without the fire suppression, using a variety of combustion and fire starters. The boxes were found to be very fire resistant, due to tight, heavy construction that limited air circulation. 

Pierce County's boxes feature bold quotations about democracy and voting. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce County's boxes feature bold quotations about democracy and voting. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce County uses graphic decals featuring quotes that inspire civic participation. They held contests at the high school closest to each drop box, and students were invited to submit their ideas. The winners saw their quote revealed, and local papers published news releases to honor the winners and to raise awareness of the drop box locations. 

Ballot drop box design features:

  • Separate walk-up and drive-up deposit points (to keep pedestrian voters out of traffic)
  • Deposit slot height suited for cars and wheelchairs. One-handed operation, for voters of all abilities
  • Slot size accommodates large envelopes, but is slim-enough to prevent tampering
  • Slanted interior design forces ballots towards doors and reduces strain for ballot drop box teams
  • Weighing 600 lbs., boxes are constructed from 1/4" and 3/8” folded steel
  • Lock body is never exposed outside the box (to protect against tampering)
  • No grip points for forced entry
  • Flush locks and doors resist impact and tampering
  • Door opens out at an angle so as to fall open if not locked, preventing unsecured boxes
  • Surface mount or cast mount legs allow custom fit to the site location
  • Drip edge protects top of door seam (to prevent ballots from getting wet when the door is opened)
  • Large side plates protect openings from rain during high winds

Location, location, location

Public facilities are ideal for ballot drop box locations. They are familiar to the public, have security and lighting, are ADA accessible, and tend to be cooperative partners. Pierce County’s sites include major transit centers, police stations, park-and-ride lots, city halls, libraries, and fire stations.

Pierce County staff use a Geographic Information System (GIS) to determine locations. They enter all current and prospective locations into the GIS and apply a “Location Allocation” geoprocessing tool. Using a road network and geocoded voter residential addresses, the tool determines the best location to serve the most voters, with a maximum voter drive time of ten minutes.

Educating the community about the location of the drop boxes is critical to ensuring their convenience. The Pierce County Auditor uses their website, local voters' pamphlet, and ballot inserts to inform voters of box locations. Their web page displays a Google map of box locations, with all map features enabled. Voters can view photographs of each box, get turn-by-turn driving directions, and see deadline reminders.

Ballot chain of custody

Pierce County drop boxes are open 19 days before each election and they remain open 24 hours a day until 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Staff keeps a close tally of ballots deposited to track volumes and determine the frequency of pick-ups. Each box can hold 1,500 ballots, so it isn't necessary to empty each box every day. On the other hand, staff knows which boxes might need to be emptied twice a day. This reveals trends that help the team plan ballot processing workloads.

All drop box activity is performed by election workers, in teams of two. Each drop box team is assigned a route that includes five to seven boxes, with no route over four hours in duration. Each drop box team is sent with a set of supplies including seals, oaths, GPS Spot Trackers, transport tubs, contact numbers, and a checklist.

Pierce county election staff members open drop boxes as a team. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

Pierce county election staff members open drop boxes as a team. Photo by Whitney Rhodes.

GPS Spot Trackers monitor the pickup and return of ballots at all times throughout the 18-day election period. Using satellite antennas and a global network, the unit movements are displayed on the supervisor’s computer screen. Pierce County knows at all times where the ballot drop box team is located and their direction of travel. This ensures the assigned route is followed without deviation and that the team is on time, helping document ballot chain of custody. Spot Trackers also help ensure the safety of election workers traveling to remote locations at night.

Ballot drop box costs:

  • Fabricated ballot drop box is approximately $5,000-$6,000, based on installation costs and quantity discount
  • GPS Spot Tracker unit is $150 and uses GPS satellites to track the movements, pinpoint locations, and send messages
  • FireStop canister is $50 and is effective for up to five years. The canisters are held in place by a magnet. Pierce County uses two canisters per box, placed just inside the ballot slots.

For more information about the Pierce County ballot drop box program, contact Whitney Rhodes, Assistant to the Auditor, at whitney.rhodes@co.pierce.wa.us.


Are you exploring new techniques for making voting convenient and safe in your jurisdiction? We want to feature your story in our newsletter. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org.