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

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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 hello@techandciviclife.org and tell us your story.