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By Super Tuesday 2016 some campaigns could have a new organizing tool to add to their digital arsenals.
The website longdistancevoter.org, which on July 22 was awarded $325,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation, is working on a widget campaigns can add to their websites that will allow supporters to request an absentee ballot from their smartphones. The site was one of 10 projects that received funding as part of the Knight News Challenge on Elections, which aims to “increase voter participation and better inform voters at both the national and local levels.”
“We’ve now received funding to roll this out as a pilot project in two states,” said Debra Cleaver, the site’s founder and executive director. “We want to expand to 10 states by November 2016 and expand to all 50 by 2020.”
In addition to groups such as Rock The Vote and Vote Latino that use the existing informational widget, Cleaver is in early discussions with NationBuilder, Organizer and Action Network about incorporating the next generation longdistancevoter widget into their page offerings.
A technologist based in San Francisco, Cleaver launched the site in 2006 and started working full-time on the project in 2014 (her day jobs have included stints as an investigator for the City of New York and working for Myspace).
Longdistancevoter.org began as a site that helped voters get the documents they needed to apply for an absentee ballot, but there was a common user complaint. “People don’t have printers,” said Cleaver. “They asked, can’t I apply online?”
Cleaver felt their pain. “I didn’t have a printer either.”
She pivoted the site to allow users to do all the paperwork online — including electronically signing the forms with DocuSign — and then the site prints and mails the users’ documents. But there’s still a roadblock. Government documents related to voting have to be signed personally by the applicant. While in a half-dozen states the forms can be faxed in, most secretaries of state require what’s called a “wet signature.” In other words, signed the old-fashioned way with a pen by the individual voter and the hard copy delivered to a government office.
This, argues Cleaver, is outdated in an era when everything from escrow documents to government contracts can be legally signed and delivered through e-signature service companies like DocuSign. In fact, Cleaver noted that North Carolina since 2012 has used DocuSign to process “all government documents requiring signatures” — except those voting related.
“Every business prefers electronic signatures, government prefers electronic signatures — federal courts mostly let you file with electronic signatures. All I’m asking for is parity between voting forms and every other contract you sign in the U.S.,” she said. “You can’t hold contradictory laws. Either electronic signatures are binding — we file our taxes with our electronic signatures — or they’re not.”
Cleaver dismissed the argument that allowing electronic signatures on voting documents could increase electoral fraud.
“There’s a full transmission log,” she said of a signature applied through DocuSign. “And if suddenly 1,000 voter-registration forms came from the same IP address, we’d know instantly. It’s far harder to forge an electronic signature because of the digital transmission record.”
Cleaver is currently in talks with the National Association of Secretaries of State on getting their approval for her service. If the service gets the greenlight, it could dramatically improve voter turnout.
Moreover, both parties run absentee voter programs, albeit for different reasons, and could harness the site’s technology. “We want everyone to embed it,” she said. “We want to be like, hey RNC, DNC, we built this — use it.”
Meanwhile, the search for more funding goes on. Cleaver hopes to raise an additional $850,000 before November 2016.