Elizabeth Bergman (Photo: Cherie Vargas)
Skimming the pages of a 50- to 100-page voter information packet during election season may seem overwhelming to many. The long list of candidates, propositions and measures that fill the pages inside can often times be intimidating to the voting population, says Elizabeth Bergman, Cal State East Bay assistant professor of political science.
But Bergman has developed an alternative solution with Voter Guide Now, an app that provides access to information about upcoming elections through iPads, iPhones or Android devices.
By entering an e-mail and street address, app users can view information about candidates and legislation on upcoming federal, state, county and city ballots.
Although the app contains the exact content that can be found in voter information packets distributed by local counties, Bergman says the mobile software is less complex and more accessible than the dense voter guide.
“I want to help the counties provide information and improve civic literacy,” said Bergman. “Hopefully through that, if we can get people to look at this and feel less intimidated by the process, than it will help with (voter) turnout.”
After seeking out local possibilities and coming up empty-handed, the CSUEB faculty member teamed up with a development organization in Las Vegas to build the Voter Guide Now prototype, using $5,000 from her own pocket to fund the project.
“Creating this app is worth it,” Bergman said, referencing the importance of voter education. “My issue is that we could be potentially disenfranchising voters because the information is too complicated, which makes it inaccessible in a way.”
The professor, who studies voter behavior, education, turnout and literacy, believes mobile technology may be a way to simplify the process.
A free pilot was offered in Marin, Santa Cruz and Shasta counties during the June 2012 election as a testament of how the app could improve voter literacy.
Although voter turnout was low in the June primaries, Bergman received positive feedback from the counties that piloted the app.
A QR code was placed on the front cover of paper voter guides to allow the public easy access to the app by scanning the code with their Smartphone. Voters were taken directly to the iPhone App store or Android market where they could install Voter Guide Now on to their device.
“There was no need to carry around the state and county paper voter guides because all of the information was on the smartphone,” said Elaine Ginnold, Marin County registrar of voters. “I and everyone else who used it liked the convenience and accessibility of it.”
Due to the positive feedback, Marin and Santa Cruz counties agreed to use the interactive app for the upcoming November elections.
However, given the cost associated with creating the app, Bergman said funding posed a huge challenge to the success of the project. While the archetype for the app has been developed, the data programmed must be customized for each respective county, which is an additional cost.
Although several counties have expressed interest in using Voter Guide Now to simplify the voter education process for their residents, the lack of funding has prevented county officials from doing so.
“There’s always difficult choices to be made, but civic literacy is at an all-time low,” said Bergman. “Something needs to be done.”
She said Voter Guide Now is her attempt to make the election process less complex and more interactive for citizens.
For green voters, the app also includes a feature allowing users to opt out of paper pamphlets, as well as a tutorial on how to correctly mark voter ballots. Additions will be made to the app in time for the upcoming presidential election, allowing voters the luxury of locating the nearest polling station on Election Day.
Both Alameda and Santa Clara counties expressed interest in using the app for the November elections, but are awaiting final approval from public officials.