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Bright Ideas: ‘Vote-bot’ Makes It Easy for Voting Age Teens to Register at School

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Problem: While most teens know they can vote at age 18, they often don’t know how or where to register, or even that they need to.

Solution: Make it easier for high school seniors to register to vote at school by using technology and a “telepresence” robot.

Crystal Brenner of the county clerk/registrar’s office poses with the Vote-bot. Photo courtesy of Macomb County, Mich.

Many high school students will turn 18 during their senior year, and by the time the November general election rolls around some will be away at college.

To make sure they’re eligible to vote, each spring Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh’s office does voter education outreach and registration at high schools.

Since 2014, instead of sending only a clerk’s office staff person to the schools, a “Vote-bot” comes along to help with the job. It’s what’s known as a telepresence robot: a remote-controlled, wheeled device with a display that enables video chat and videoconferencing, among other options.

“My hope is that this technology will help get young people interested in voting,” Sabaugh said.  “More students visit the voter registration table with the robot than without.”

In its first full year of use, 2014, the Vote-bot registered 576 students, according to Sabaugh’s office. This year, invitations were sent to 31 high schools to gauge their interest in a Vote-bot visit.

The robot comprises a motorized, self­-balancing stand — similar to a Segway scooter — with a tablet computer attached. It runs customized software provided by the vendor and cost the clerk’s office about $2,000. An elections department staff member is the face on the robot’s screen and operates the robot — including steering — from the main county clerk’s office over a Wi-Fi connection to an iPad.

The clerk’s Elections Department does an annual voter registration drive each spring — this year, it’s now through June — that also reaches out to all graduating seniors in the county’s school districts. Sabaugh’s office arranges to have the Vote-bot attend graduation preparation events, government classes or school assemblies.

One advantage for 18 year olds who will be going off to college is that if they register in person, at a county office or through the Vote-bot, they are automatically eligible to vote absentee in their first election. That’s a benefit not available to those who register by mail.

This isn’t the clerk’s first foray into cutting-edge technology. In 2012, Google honored Sabaugh as a “Government Transformer” for her office’s embrace of technology. Last year, her office worked with Uber, the ride-hailing company, on a pilot program to provide free rides to the courthouse for jurors — at no cost to the county — a “first of its kind” partnership, according to the transportation network company.

Crystal Brenner, an administrative coordinator in the clerk’s office, said the office is always on the lookout for “interesting technology,” and that’s how it became aware of telepresence robots. “The robot caught our eye as a possibly creative way to generate interest in voter registration.” Sabaugh’s office believes it may be the first in the nation to use Vote-bots to register voters.

More broadly, telepresence robots are being used in a variety of settings, such as in schools for remote learning, hospitals and museums.

The technology intelligence research firm Tractica predicts that 31,600 telepresence robots will be in use worldwide by 2020 — a nearly 50 percent increase over the most recent 4,200 in 2015.

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