Four young people, all under age 27, set out to create a website that would give all people, but especially new first time voters and irregular voters, an easy online place to view what candidates and other ballot initiatives they could expect to see on their voting ballots this November.
In the morning, the small team that makes up the League of Young Voters, would come together in a small conference room at their Portland, Oregon offices and scribble down what they thought would be an an easy-to-understand and navigable user interface. They’d spend the rest of their afternoons on the streets doing their grassroots thing, getting non-college youth in low income and urban areas registered to vote.
Finally, this week, the fruits of their labor launched: TheBallot.org. The interactive site was created in partnership with the grassroots social change organization, The Bus Foundation, with additional funding from the Youth Engagement Fund. Using open source coding and data, the team compiled ballot information from all 50 states into a website.
Using TheBallot.org, voters can plug in their address and receive a sample ballot, information about candidates, and log in on their favorite social media site and allow friends on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+ know who they plan to vote for and why.
“We believe that when people engage in conversation together they find they have much more in common,” said Sam Patton of The League of Youth Voters. “There’s a lot of evidence that if you can engage people when they are young they are more likely to become lifelong voters.”
That goal is part of the mission of the The League of Young Voters, which was founded in 2003. The group aims to connect with young people at work on issues that affect their lives. They also seek to provide young people with tools and training to help them harness opportunities to change their own lives.
Other features of TheBallot.org were created by TurboVote, a website that tracks various voter registration rules and deadlines. Users insert basic information and the site cranks out a filled-out voter registration application they can download and mail in. At the end of the online process, the site displays in bright numerals the number of days left to file the application.
“The idea behind the concept is taking voting, something inherently social and collaborative, and bring it online as a resource for voters to utilize,” said Rob “Biko” Baker, the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters.
The concept is catching on and even getting some celebrity notice.
Just last week, rapper Snoop Lion (previously Snoop Dog) spontaneously tweeted the link to TheBallot, giving the burgeoning site an extra boost. Registrations in the thousands poured in shortly after.
It was a long hard road to the launch. Patton said the process of creating the database was laborious and made the team realize how disjointed and confusing the electoral process is in the U.S. The team started with existing data already compiled by their friends at the online community organization groups New Organizing Institute. Team member Sarah Stern got to intimately know election commissions in 50 states when making 60 to 80 phone calls a day trying to assemble all the information needed to populate the site.
“The data isn’t even standardized,” Patton said he discovered. “In 2012, some of the electoral information is only on paper” making it hard to collect and manipulate in digital format.
But the efforts are being appreciated. Patton noted that in the communities where they work, social centers and after school programs are really important meeting places. “They are excited to give people the options to say just enter their address or town and suddenly have all the candidates for office before them,” Patton said. “You are able to see them and recognize them in your life…not just as ethereal in the cloud but as real people.”
This year, voter suppression and voter fraud have been two battles being waged in advance of the presidential elections and the League had its hand in it too as they took part in a Texas lawsuit challenging early voting hours.
To Patton, the new voter ID and early voting laws are part of a solution in search of a problem. “There have only been a handful of cases of people using id for voter fraud,” he said. “It’s not right to punish many hundreds of thousands of legitimate honest citizens that want to participate in the process.”