Tiana Epps-Johnson
1,526,823 views • 11:29

OK, I want to take a moment to let each of you think to yourselves about the last time you sent or received a fax.


Well, for me, it was this morning, because one piece of my work is making sure that everyone in the US has the information that they need to make decisions about the candidates on their ballot. And collecting that information from the local government offices responsible for maintaining it means sending and receiving a lot of faxes.

Voting is one of our most fundamental rights. It's one of the most tangible ways that each and every one of us can shape our communities. And as we enter this fourth industrial revolution, where technology is changing everything around us, you would think, with something as important as the right to vote, that we would have the most modern, secure, inclusive system that could exist ... But we don't. When we look at comparable democracies, the US has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world. We have a system where even the most persistent voters come up against exhausting barriers. A system where 20th-century technology — like fax machines — and outdated practices stand in the way of full, vibrant participation. In US presidential elections, turnout hovers around 60 percent. The numbers are even lower for local elections. That means that nearly 40 percent of Americans aren't voters. That's nearly 100 million people.

I believe in something very straightforward: that everyone should have the information that they need to become a voter, that the voting process should be seamless and secure and that every voter should have information they trust to make decisions about the candidates on their ballot. Because when more people vote, together, we make better decisions for our communities.

So I've spent the last eight years on a mission to push our democracy into the 21st century. Now, one of the most common approaches to election modernization is advocating for policy change, and that's an incredibly important piece of the strategy for building a system where millions of more people become voters. But I've taken a different approach. I focused on a critical yet largely untapped resource for election modernization: local election officials. I work with thousands of local election officials across the country to build tools and skills that they can use immediately to transform the way that they're engaging today's voters. Folks like Kat and Marie. Kat and Marie have worked together for years in a windowless office in the basement of the Mercer County Courthouse in West Virginia. Together, they have a tremendous responsibility. They're local election officials serving Mercer County's 40,000 registered voters.

Local election officials are the public servants that do the day-to-day work that makes our election system function. When you fill out a voter-registration form, they're the folks that process them and add you to the rolls. They're the folks who buy the technology that we use to cast and count ballots. They recruit and train the volunteers at your local polling place. And they're the official nonpartisan source for informing people in their communities about how to vote. And unlike other countries where there's some form of centralized election authority, in the US, there are 7,897 different county and municipal offices, like Kat and Marie's, that each have an independent role in administering elections. Yes, that's nearly 8,000 slightly different ways that you might experience voting based on where you happen to live.

When I was talking with Kat and Marie, like so many election officials that I talk with in rural towns and in major cities alike, they were deeply proud of getting to help people in their communities, but they were also worried. All of the new tools that people were using to get information — the internet, social media — they were difficult to figure out how to use effectively. And they felt like they weren't fully meeting the needs of Mercer County voters. One thing that they really wished that they had was a website so they could create a hub with information about how to register in upcoming elections, and a place to put election results. See, at the time, when voters had questions, they had to either call or visit their office, which meant that Kat and Marie were inevitably answering the same questions over and over again, which is both a superinefficient use of their time, but also created totally unnecessary barriers for voters when that information could just live online.

And Mercer County wasn't alone. At the time, they were one of 966 counties in the US that had no voting information online. I'll let that sink in. They were one of the nearly one-third of counties in the US that had no place online to find official information about how to vote.

To Kat and Marie, not having and election website was unacceptable, but they didn't have very many options. They didn't have the budget to hire a web developer, they didn't have the expertise to build a site themselves, so they went without. And 40,000 voters in Mercer County went without. We're in a moment where we have an unprecedented opportunity to transform civic engagement. Technology is revolutionizing science and industry. It's already transformed how we connect with one another and understand the world around us, but our democratic institutions — they're being left behind. The US is one of the few major democracies in the world that puts the onus of voter registration on the individual voter, rather than the government. The rules that govern how to vote vary from state to state, and sometimes even county to county. And we have ballots that are pages and pages long. This November, on my ballot, there are literally over 100 different people and referenda for me to make decisions about. We have to be using the best tools we can bring to bear to help voters navigate this complexity, and right now, we're not.

One of the most common narratives I hear in my work is that people aren't civically engaged because they're apathetic — because they don't care. But as my brilliant friends at the Center for Civic Design say, if there is apathy, it comes from the system, not the voter. We can change the system right now by connecting local election officials like Kat and Marie with 21st-century tools and the training that they need to use them to better serve voters. Tools and training to do things like use social media for voter engagement, or use data to staff and equip polling places so that we don't see hours-long lines at the polls, or training on cybersecurity best practices so that we can ensure that our voting systems are secure.

When we invest in this approach, we see meaningful, lasting results. Kat and Marie are online now. Inspired by their experience, we built a website template using research-based best practices in civic design, and developed the training so that Kat and Marie are able to maintain their site themselves. In less than a week, they went from having never seen the back end of a website to building a resource for Mercer County voters that they have been independently keeping up to date since 2014. Today, the 40,000 voters in Mercer County and over 100,000 voters in counties across the country have everything that they need to become a voter directly from their local election official, on a mobile-friendly, easy-to-use, accessible website.

And we can even further scale the impact when local election officials are not only reaching out through their own channels, but they're extending their reach by working in partnership with others. Efforts like the Ballot Information Project and the Voting Information Project work with election officials nationwide to create a centralized, standard database of key voting information, like what's on your ballot and where to vote. That information powers tools built by companies like Google and Facebook to get information in the places where people already are, like their newsfeed and search. In 2016, the Ballot Information Project connected the public with information about candidates and referenda over 200 millions times, helping between a third and a half of every single person who cast a ballot. And that model has been replicated for elections around the world.

When we look at efforts in other areas of government, we can see the opportunity when we listen to the public's needs and we meet them with modern tools. I think about my friends at mRelief, who have helped 260,000 families unlock 42 million dollars in food benefits by helping government agencies transition away from a 20-page, paper-based application for food stamps to a process that can happen in 10 questions over text message in fewer than three minutes. That kind of transformation is possible in voting. It's happening right now, but there's still so much work to do.

Now, if you have any technical bone in your body, I know what you're thinking. This is all solvable. The technology that we need exists. We collectively have the expertise. You might even be thinking about volunteering at your local election office. I love how solutions-oriented you are, but to be clear, the work that is needed to modernize our election system isn't something that's going to happen using 20 percent time, or through a hackathon, or by doing a one-off technology project. What we need is significant, sustained, long-term investment. Investment in technology and investment in the skills of local election officials to run 21st-century elections, because if we don't invest in the long game, we risk finding ourselves perpetually behind.

So if you're ready to help millions, if you're ready to close the gap between the system that we have and the system that we deserve, we need you. Organizations that are doing this work year-round need you. Local election offices need you. Come join us.

Thank you.