An interview with the Center for Technology and Civic Life: Empowering Officials and Informing Voters with Digital Tools

An Interview with Tiana Epps-Johnson

Every election, millions of people search online for the information they need to cast their votes — polling place locations and hours, registration requirements, and what races and proposals will appear on the ballot.

Unfortunately, nearly one in three county election offices have no web site and countless other election offices have sites that are cumbersome and outdated. Compounding the challenge, election officials are navigating increasingly complex election legislation and technology, and are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals calling to the election office during voting periods.

Last year, the Center for Technology and Civic Life collaborated with TurboVote, the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Civic Design to provide resource-strapped local election officials with user-friendly templates for creating web sites that would serve the needs of voters. The Center for Technology and Civic Life’s Director Tiana Epps-Johnson answered questions about what she and her partners learned from this pilot project in Inyo County, CA; Carroll County, OH; Mercer County, WV; Hardeman County, TN; and Takoma Park, MD.

DF: How are you helping local election offices to better inform voters?
TEJ: Using best practices in election administration, the Center for Technology and Civic Life and its partners built a template website that county election offices can easily populate with local information. The template was built on, Google Blogger, an existing platform, to minimize maintenance needs and make updating easy. We also developed a series of user-friendly guides. In the summer before the 2014 election, our team travelled around the country to five county election offices to pilot the template. We deliberately sought offices in smaller jurisdictions because they are least likely to have access to best practice information and/or the capacity to build new systems. We then coached the administrators on election data, plain language, and website fundamentals. Even though most of them had little or no technology background, with training and support they were able to set-up and populate their own websites, using a suite of entirely new skills.

DF: And what were the results?
TEJ: Four of our five counties held elections in November. The sites had staggered launches between July and September, but to date they’ve had more than 27,000 visits. There were 14,000 page views in the weeks immediately before and after the election – that’s 40% of the total number of voters who cast ballots in those jurisdictions. We were absolutely thrilled! Also, all five pilot counties said they would recommend the website improvements to other election administrators. In fact, the election official in Inyo County, California, who is also the County’s Clerk & Recorder, indicated that she used her new knowledge to set-up a similar public interface for the Recorder office. The election template and system were so intuitive she was able to quickly replicate it. Now both county offices boast an easy-to-use, information-rich website for the public. This shows that the education was transferable, and also sheds light on the potential scalability of the initiative.

I think that this project is brilliant and is a simple way to fill a very large gap in election administration.

Kammi Foote, Clerk/Recorder, Inyo County, CA (ELECTricity, pilot site)

DF: How did the collaborative nature of the work help increase its effectiveness?
TEJ: It is really exciting that this work came out of a deliberate collaboration between organizations working in the same space. The website templates were based on research and foundational principles from years of work done by the Center for Civic Design, and they shared this information and detailed feedback on the template design, along with field guides at no cost. Additionally, the Sunlight Foundation and TurboVote provided their expertise to guide prioritization of template features and shape the outreach strategy. Together, all partners created a path for working together that accelerated progress, and it’s been a real success.

DF: Why are you so enthusiastic about this work?
TEJ: This should come as no surprise, but election administrators are truly passionate about voting – they want to do everything they can to facilitate this fundamental aspect of our democracy. And yet, so many of them have long-standing “pain points” when it comes to getting vital information out to the public. We are literally alleviating that pain. It’s more than that, though. There are a lot of solutions and practice ideas out there, but the networks to share that information – and the professional development needed to implement it – aren’t enough. Money for election administration is tight and getting tighter. The Center for Technology and Civic Life is building both the infrastructure and the relationships to get around these problems – we’re connecting local election administrators from across the country and helping them build and share low to no cost resources that really improve elections.

It is a great information site for my office. I believe once the word is out it is going to save me a lot of time in my office with things such as phone calls, maps, registration questions, election questions, etc.

Amber Moore, Election Administrator, Hardeman County, TN (ELECTricity, pilot site)

DF: What have you learned through your work to date and the interactions you’ve had?
TEJ: First, build with, not for. We know that we must meet local election administrators where they are and acknowledge that each jurisdiction has unique challenges. Even though one size does not fit all, every election office can work with guidelines. Second, invest in people and the learning process. We know that confidence increases with meaningful, and sometimes small tech victories, like learning keyboard shortcuts. It’s important to move folks through points of frustration to experiences where they are satisfied with technology. Finally, forget about partisanship. We know that election administrators are focused on following rules. Openness or resistance to technology does not fall along political lines.

DF: What’s next for your work with local election offices?
TEJ: The Center for Technology and Civic Life is planning a significant expansion that will be shaped by the data that emerge from the first phase of the work. Two of the pilot counties are using website analytics for the first time; they’re getting detailed information about their community’s most common questions and will use this to increase their responsiveness in the future. We will also be focusing on increasing adoption of the template interface and training election officials across the country.

BEFORE: Inyo County’s elections webpage. Touch for a larger view.

AFTER: Inyo County’s elections webpage. Touch for a larger view.

  • Center for Civic Design
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • The Center for Technology and Civic Life
  • TurboVote