County election officials will have a new set of eyes watching their performance on Nov. 6, and it’s taking its cues directly from social media.
MyFairElection.com, is a crowd-sourced, election-monitoring tool that its creators liken to “Yelp for democracy.” Yelp is the popular smartphone app and website that lets people rate and review everything from restaurants to services provided.
“Hopefully that will be a rich source of data for county-level election officials to figure out what the particular texture of satisfaction of voters is, and where the pain points are, and what the particular problems are,” said Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard’s Ash Center. He created the site in collaboration with LegiNation, Inc. and concerned citizen groups.
While some county election officials are a little wary of the tool, they are hopeful that the resulting data might be useful.
“It is frustrating that people spend resources trying to identify problems when we already know what many problems are,” said Cameron Quinn, who runs Fairfax County, Va.’s elections as its general registrar. “What we need is people willing to engage in solutions.
“On the other hand, perhaps having this kind of information out there may help election officials get the attention of their funders at the state and local government levels,” she added, “and perhaps it will help increase the funding needed to do the job that the public expects.”
Fung said both real-time on Election Day — and afterwards — MyFairElection will aggregate anonymously voter-provided data into “heat maps” and other “data-rich displays” to identify and display in a very visual format the quality of electoral access across the country.
“Voters will be able to access the site via smartphone, laptop or desktop computer to describe and rate the quality of their voting experience: five stars for a fulfilling experience at the ballot box or one star for very long lines, broken machines or intimidation,” he said. “They also will be able to record wait times, comment about their experience, report problems…”
Click here to view a short video on the site and how MyFairElection works
Quinn said the quality of voters’ experiences on Election Day is largely dependent on election departments’ having sufficient state and local funding. “There seems to be among voters an expectation of perfection in the election business, but we are definitely not being funded at the level of perfection.” While she called her budget “adequate,” she said insufficient funding is “more acutely the case” for many of her colleagues across the country.
Running elections successfully also depends on the availability of volunteer election officials, which Quinn said are in short supply nationwide.
“Even though election officials across the across the country have been saying this for years, there’s a particularly acute problem with recruiting people to be election officials,” she said. “And we still don’t get that much participation by all of these voter advocacy groups and reform-minded people to really solve the problems we already know about.”
As with any crowd-sourced information, MyFairElection’s results will be only as good as the crowd’s good intentions. Services like Yelp have been known to receive fake reviews, or for example, restaurateurs anonymously giving themselves favorable ratings.
Asked about potential for gaming the MyFairElection system, Fung said its success depends on the honesty and integrity of those submitting data. Detection software will be used to prevent “the more obvious forms of abuse in gaming” — such as a computer programmed to submit ratings every second for the same polling place or different polling places, he said.
“Just like Wikipedia depends for its articles on people not vandalizing the articles and enough people trying to write good articles that are accurate and true,” he added, “MyFairElection depends on the same kind of mechanism.”
The system was tested in “beta” version in 2008, but participation was about 2,000. Fung hopes at least 10,000 voters will participate this year.
"Our hope is that we get enough traffic so that in real-time people in counties could identify where the problem voting places are. Maybe they’d be able in real-time to respond to those kinds of problems at a particular one-star or two-star polling place.”
Helen Purcell runs Maricopa County, Ariz.’s elections as clerk and registrar. Her attitude about the project and the data it could provide is the more the merrier.
“Any input that we get from voters and other people having to do with elections, I can’t see that that will do anything but help us.”