Q and A With Matthew Morse: February 2012
Matthew Morse, a senior associate at the Pew Center on the States, studies how technology and elections fit together. State Legislatures asked him about his work.
SL: What is the Pew Center on the States’ interest in elections?
Morse: Our election initiatives support innovative research and partnerships to achieve the highest standards of accuracy, cost-effectiveness, convenience, and security in America's system of election administration. We support research that examines key election problems and we also run projects that address issues identified during elections. My part in the overall process is to look at how technology is used, or can be used, for elections.
SL: You’ve spent a great deal of time looking at state election websites. Why is this so important?
Morse: Pew did a report in 2008 assessing state elections websites called “Being Online Is Not Enough,” and we’ve just released an updated report,“Being Online Is Still Not Enough.” The good news is that virtually all states are doing a better job at presenting essential voter information, such as where and when to vote.
SL: Why is being online so essential?
Morse: Recently a survey by the Mellman firm asked this question of 850 registered voters: If you found out your polling place had changed, how would you go about finding out where to vote? Not surprisingly, younger voters are highly likely to go online. But beyond that, almost everyone was likely to go online to find their polling place. The follow-up question was even more interesting: If you went online, how would you search? 46 percent said they’d use a search engine and 17 percent said they’d go to a newspaper outlet. Those are the core audience for the Voting Information Project, Pew’s effort to put official voting information in as many places as we can.
SL: Tell us more about the Voting Information Project.
Morse: It’s a collaboration between Pew and a number of other institutions, and its goal is to make the essentials of voting—where, when, and what’s on the ballot—available in the places people search and in voter-friendly formats. VIP gets its data directly from the states on an extremely regular basis, so we capture a last-minute change in a polling place and can communicate it immediately.
To do that, our head engineer on the project, Aaron Strauss, basically said, “Let’s design a format for data where we’ll get this data from the state, format it in an open programming language, and get it out to the public.” It’s making available the official information through all kinds of technologies—websites, smartphones, virtually anywhere.
By the way, we do not take any data that can identify any individuals; protecting privacy is essential.
SL: Do social media outlets play a role in distributing voting information?
Morse: Yes. Of all the social media realms, Facebook and Twitter have become the most prominent. States are realizing that they need to put the information where their constituents spend their time. And, they’re seeing that these can offer two-way communication, something that is new.
SL: How do states remain sensitive to what’s called “the digital divide,” the expression that refers to the fact that not everyone has access to computers, and even if they do, not everyone is comfortable getting their information electronically?
Morse: Our advice for local election officials is that technology is one tool in the tool belt, or just one strategy for reaching voters. By using this technology well, they’ll find that they can save money and devote those extra resources to other things.
SL: Can technology help people not just to get information, but actually vote?
Morse: Yes. One is a new product within VIP that should be of huge benefit to military and overseas voters. If a voter enters an address, VIP will pre-populate a federal absentee ballot, and therefore help voters cast their ballots. This avoids errors due to misspelling or bad handwriting, and it cuts down on transmission time. After the ballot is electronically marked, using the official data coming from the state, the voter prints it and then can fax it or mail it back, depending on the state. Some states will allow voters to email it back.
SL: Anything else you’d like to share on technology and voting?
Morse: Pew is all about using technology to help voters, writ large, throughout the process. But there’s a special benefit for voters with specific needs or challenges. Overseas voters are in one group. Voters with visual or other disabilities are another example, and technology is very encouraging for them. In 2011, Oregon experimented with using iPads for people who lived in nursing facilities. It’s fantastic. And the Wounded Warrior Project, funded by the Department of Defense, is providing grant money now to develop technologies to help wounded veterans, and eventually anyone with physical challenges, to vote. We’ll see more on this as early as this year.