Politics

The messy world of data behind tech’s campaign to get out the vote

All that how-to-vote data you've been seeing on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat? It comes from just a few organizations, working like crazy to put it all in one place.

Facebook's Voting Information Center

Facebook's Voting Information Center is just one of the many Get Out The Vote tools relying on hard-to-get data.

Photo: Facebook

During the 2020 election, companies all over the tech industry have worked together to try and provide their customers and users with useful information about the election. They're fighting misinformation wars and trying to ward off would-be hackers, but they're also just trying to make sure people know how to vote and what they're voting for.

You'd think that part would be simple. It's not. "There are around 650,000 elected officials across the country," said Sarah Rosier, the director of strategic partnerships at Ballotpedia. That includes everyone from POTUS all the way down to school boards and comptrollers. And there's no 650,000-row spreadsheet, neatly organized with everyone's names and what they stand for, anywhere to be found.

In recent years, a handful of organizations, like Ballotpedia, BallotReady and Democracy Works, are trying to change this. They're collecting, collating and structuring a country's worth of messy voting information in an effort to make it easier for people to know what's on their ballot. Most people go into the booth knowing who they want for president, said BallotReady CEO Alex Niemczewski, "but then they see this ballot, that is really long, has all these other offices that they don't really know what they're responsible for, like Water Reclamation Commissioner. And they end up guessing or leaving it blank, or just not showing up."

They've been working on it for years, but having reliable data feels more urgent than ever in 2020. Plus, in a year full of pandemic-related logistical complications, these groups also want to make sure people know when, where and how they can vote safely. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google and Reddit are increasingly counting on them to get it right, because they want to share the same data with billions of users.

"What makes it a gigantic amount of work," Niemczewski said, "is local election authorities are the ones who hold this information, whether it's lists of candidates or early voting times or polling places." Every state, every city, every town has its own system. "So the information has tens of thousands of disparate sources."

As a result, "government website navigation" is a skill in serious demand. Some websites can be easily scraped, but others use odd scrolling techniques or problematic formatting that makes them hard to read. But that's not even the biggest problem, Niemczewski said. "A lot of these local election authorities don't put their information online, so we have to make phone calls. Sometimes we have to send faxes." One researcher recently got voter data on a floppy disk, which sent the team on a run to a computer store to get a machine that could read it. Niemczewski declined to name the sender, though, not wanting to offend any local election authorities. Because she wants them to keep sending data, no matter the format.

One of the largest efforts to collect this kind of information comes from Democracy Works, whose Voting Information Project works with states to collect and update data about polling locations. It's the only model that exists where the states are participating in the collection of it and sending it to a centralized place," said Mike Ward, Democracy Works' VP of voter engagement.

Even knowing what a given voter gets to vote for can be complicated. Every city and town is an overlapping set of districts, which means voters get different sets of ballots. "You'd think we'd have online mapping, and elections offices would have digital everything ready to go," Rosier said. After all, GPS does exist. More often, though, Rosier said "we were getting answers like 'Oh no, we don't have a map file we can send you, Jane in the elections office knows who gets what ballot.' And we're thinking, like, what if Jane gets hit by a bus? Who would know?" Ballotpedia estimates that more than 10% of people get an incorrect ballot.

In many cases, Ballotpedia researchers have taken to asking local election officials to take pictures of the boundary maps they have on the wall in the office, and then re-creating them digitally. They're working on putting all that information into the kind of structured, shareable database that should have existed a long time ago.

At the beginning, even organizations like Ballotpedia weren't thinking about how to share their data with others. They were just focused on getting it all into one place, on their website, and hoping that helped. But in 2016, Rosier said, a company approached Ballotpedia and asked if they had a list of all the candidates for the school elections in the state. The answer was yes, technically, but not in an easily shareable way. "And we went, 'Oh, people might want to use our data in a structured format.'"

Ever since, a small team at Ballotpedia has been developing feeds and open APIs designed to be used by others. Internally, this is the data that powers Ballotpedia's automatically generating sample ballots, and the "Who Represents Me" tool that lets a voter type in their address and see all their elected officials. BallotReady offers a similar tool: Type in your address (or share your location with your favorite social app) and you can see all the candidates and ballot measures you'll be voting on.

Tech companies have been some of the most voracious customers of those APIs, using them to power their get-out-the-vote tools. Facebook has been using Ballotpedia data to help power the Voting Information Center that the company said more than 39 million people have visited. Snapchat worked with BallotReady on a mini-app called Before You Vote that let users fill out sample ballots before they head to the polls. Twitter worked with Ballotpedia to identify and label all the candidates on Twitter, and with BallotReady on a tool helping people find ways to vote early. "The world is really noisy," said Twitter Public Policy Director Bridget Coyne, "and we want to make sure people don't miss this."

For the civic organizations, partnering with these huge companies helps them get the word out. In general, BallotReady's Niemczewski said, "older voters tend to be really excited about us, because they know the problem." They're used to reading multiple newspapers, asking friends for recommendations, writing out their ballot the night before. "But young people often think it's only going to be Biden and Trump on their ballot … so the fact that we can work with Snapchat and Tiktok, for example, to actually be in front of more young people is really transformative for us."

Democracy Works, which has Facebook's Chris Hughes and Katie Harbath on its board along with several other tech execs, is unsurprisingly also a powerful partner for tech companies. The organization then offers its Voting Information Project data, or a white-label version of its TurboVote app, to organizations that can help get the word out. In 2020, Democracy Works partnered with companies including Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon, Reddit, WordPress, Tumblr and others. "We basically reach every single consumer in the United States," Ward said.

These organizations say they're trying to be nonpartisan, getting information from official sources and running everything through a rigorous process both for checking facts and removing bias. "We want readers to never leave the page thinking we tried to persuade them of something," Rosier said. "We want them to feel empowered." Candidate information comes primarily straight from their mouths and websites, and ballot measures are explained as simply as possible.

Getting the right information once isn't enough, though. Especially in 2020. Voting regulations seem to change by the hour, filing deadlines are being fought over in the Supreme Court, questions about the efficacy and legality of mail-in ballots continue to fly. Researchers have to set schedules: They make sure and check every source regularly, as often as every day for the fastest-changing places. In the days before the election, they were also fielding any and all voting-related questions. They're already starting to look ahead to the census results, too, which will redraw all those electoral maps and surely spur a round of lawsuits and rule-making.

And after this election, there will be another election. And another. These organizations are trying to build a better system even as the system keeps racing along at full speed. So they'll keep making phone calls and dealing with floppy disks, and hoping that eventually they won't have to anymore.

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