HKS Students Launch e-Voting Revolution

October 13, 2010
Story by Aarti Shahani, The Citizen; Video by Doug Gavel & Lindsay Hodges Anderson, Harvard Kennedy School Office of Communication & Public Affairs

The vision came to Seth Flaxman MPP2 as he sat alone in his room during winter break, trying to come up with great ideas to promote digital democracy.

He attempted to register to vote at his new address. He grew increasingly frustrated by the system. “The absentee ballot system is totally absurd,” he complained.

That’s when the light bulb went off. “Why don’t I start an organization that helps people like me register online [to vote]?”

Flaxman knew nothing about internet companies. So he approached his friend and tech geek Kathryn Peters MPP2. The simplicity of Flaxman’s idea appealed to her. “It’s not a difficult proposition, technologically speaking,” Peters explained.

They’d just shaken hands on it when Amanda Cassel Kraft, MPP2, joined the mix. Her first foray into political campaigns was the 2008 Obama campaign. It whetted her appetite, she says, “to create new avenues to move the electoral process.”

Move they did. In September, this dream team—Flaxman, Peters and Kraft — launched TurboVote – the nation’s first online voter registration non-profit. It’s a stark, if nascent, example of how Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) students are combining political values with entrepreneurial strategies to bring about change.

The founders intended to pitch the idea at the Social Enterprise Conference competition next spring. But resources came knocking at their door, so they started without a business plan.

Developers volunteered to write code. Archon Fung, Ford Foundation professor of democracy and citizenship, helped secure a seed grant of $3,700 from the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit aiming to increase government transparency. Nicco Mele, an adjunct lecturer in public policy, connected them to the snail-mail house that would process completed online forms.

Flaxman’s sister at Boston University moved the school to be the test site. The BU deans sent out an email blast, and the Student Union set up laptop stations in the cafeteria. Thus far in the beta phase, 300 BU students and another hundred family and friends have signed up for TurboVote.

“It’s tremendous opportunity,” says Mele. “Realizing opportunity is 99 percent perspiration.”

The promise of getting new people to cast a ballot – anyone from the cynical middle to the deeply marginalized – motivates the team. Election laws make them break a sweat.

It’s legal to help people obtain absentee ballot forms. “Charging [for the service] is the delicate issue,” says Peters. Currently TurboVote asks participants to pay the cost of printing and mail, plus a optional donation for overhead costs. The founders aren’t clear yet on how to develop a sustainable revenue model.

States’ varying rules on absentee ballots is another issue that the founders have to contend. At BU, students predominantly come from five northeastern states that are relatively low burden with respect to these rules. But Illinois allows every county to have its own unique form. North Carolina only takes handwritten requests. “There’s not even a form,” Peters says, with mild indignation. “You write them a letter.”

Peters says she hopes that, as TurboVote grows, it will prompt states to accept digital signatures. In Arizona, for example, voters can register online without printing and signing. The Secretary of State interfaced the voter registration database with that of the Motor Vehicle Commission, which documents citizenship status. “They’ve broken down the silos so that citizens don’t have to prove their identity over and over again,” she says, “That’s going to be the next revolution.”

Netflix provides precedent for TurboVote. The founders of Netflix dreamt of streaming movies online. Yet the technology didn’t exist. So they mailed DVDs that users had ordered online, until the internet caught up with their vision.

As the Turbovote team works round the clock to increase its registration numbers, heavy hitters are watching.

Flaxman barely has time to share the story of how his first start-up was created. He darts out of the room to take a call from Mobile Commons, the marketing-by-text giant. The State Department invited Peters to speak at a conference, co-sponsored by the World Bank, on how digital technology can strengthen civil society abroad.

The developer of President Obama’s online registration website has just volunteered to build-up TurboVote’s operations. His resume touts the fact that he helped half a million people to vote. Kraft smiles, “Soon that will be on our resumes too.”

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