With Early Voting Comes Mobile App To Inform You On Ballot

Apr 24, 2017

Phyllis Ingram pulls up the rear door on her SUV, leans in and starts pulling open cardboard boxes.

"This is how my arms get all banged up," says Ingram. "It's 75 for here, Steve?" she asks her husband.

It's a sunny day on San Antonio's South Side, and Ingram--who's with the League of Women Voters--is out delivering their Voters' Guide with her husband. 

"Two, 4, 6, 8," she counts off the glossy black and white guides meant for Bexar County's Bibilotec on South Zarzamora. It's one of 50 locations where she or other volunteers will drop them off.

The non-partisan guide is filled with candidate biographies, their priorities and their positions on issues. They also provide information about propositions on the ballot, polling places and Voter ID laws.

"Got your voter guides," Ingram says to the two staff members as she walks in the door. Every election cycle the League prints and distributes these guides--this year more than 8,000--to get people to the polls. While she enjoys it, it is a lot of work.

"In blood, sweat, tears or dollars?" she responds laughing when asked about the cost.

That's why Ingram is excited about The Voting App, a free tool from Austin-based Civic Technology Foundation. It makes local election information like the League's guide available on a smart phone. Ingram says the last time they teamed up with The Voting App, their guide reached as many as 5,000 more people without her having to drop of a single pamphlet.

"We have more power in our pocket now than they did to send  an astronaut into space, so the question is how are we going to use those devices to evolve the way we participate in 21st-century democracy," says Civic Technology Foundation Executive Director Jeff Cardenas.

Jeff Cardenas (Left) and Joe Santori (Right) talk about their efforts with the Civic Technology Foundation
Credit Paul Flahive

He says the app is effective because it uses push notifications that pop up on your phone to tell you when the next election is, to remind you to read your ballot, and to plot your nearest polling station on a map.

The app uses your address to tell you exactly what issues and candidates are on your ballot. It will show you how well you align with candidates on positions.

One big thing designers did to increase engagement was create a video voters' guide. You can find all of them on the Represent!SA website, which is a partnership between the Civic Technology Foundation and several other nonprofits.

Brian Halderman is the director at the University of Texas San Antonio's Center for Civic Engagement. He likes the videos and says he often sees students watching them on their phones. Student-aged adults have made gains in the voting share in national elections but remain low in municipal ones. Halderman thinks an app can help by grabbing younger eyes.

"I do like the idea of having an app that provides notifications or reminders. Whether or not a student is going to download it, use it, that's a whole other unknown," he says.

This is the fourth local or statewide election The Voting App has been used for in Texas, and Joe Santori -- the other half of the Civic Technology Foundation--says they aren't doing this to get rich.

"We genuinely feel like this is one of those things that deserves to exist, so we're doing what we can to make it happen. We're doing everything we can to make it happen quite honestly," he says laughing.

He's laughing because what these two are learning is there isn't much money in creating non-partisan apps. Santori supports himself as a video-game developer, designer, musician and general creative. Cardenas left his job at a robotics startup to run the foundation full-time.

They offer this free, but it isn't easy. These kinds of tools are time-intensive and expensive to build, so making it sustainable is their next plan. They are exploring --among other avenues -- crowd-funding models. That's why San Antonio's municipal election is their most robust and refined offering. 

One thing they don't want to do -- that other similar apps do -- is sell user data, Says Jeff Cardenas.

"There is this saying in the tech world that if you aren't paying for it, you aren't the customer. You're the product."

Big data plays an increasingly large role in elections, with campaigns able to provide individualized messaging to persuade based on their knowledge of the audience. 

The Voting App is available in both the iTunes store for iPhone and the Google Play store for Android. The iPhone app is fully functional, and an update for the Android app is scheduled for Monday to access ballot information.