President Obama speaks at the opening Keynote event during the 2016 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival (Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for SXSW)

The President Has Called; It’s Time for Tech To Answer

How We Took on the Voting Problem and Made a Big Impact

Last week, President Obama spoke to some of the best minds in the tech world at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas to appeal to their civic duty. The President was in Austin to continue to build on the work that started back in his first term — recruiting the tech industry into government to solve some of the biggest problems we face together as a nation. And I can say the work that has been done by both tech and government minds in solving critical problems that touch topics like the organ transplant system— which used to be paper-based, electronic health records — which just didn’t exist in any useful format, government procurement — formerly a totally beurocratic and dystopian process and access and use of government data — which has laid the foundation for hundreds of new startups — all of which is unprecedented.

But while there have been waves of tech and business gurus that have come into government to solve some of these problems, the work isn’t done. Small surprise, government still has lots of problems that need to be solved — which is why the President took his pitch to one of the biggest tech stages of the year, SXSW.

Early on in his talk, the President brought up the topic of voting and noted that we are the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote and emphasized his point by remarking that ordering a pizza is easier than exercising your right to vote.

Basically, the President was saying — voting is one of the problems we need your help with. But it isn’t that simple, which the President noted — saying that voting is governed differently at different levels of government. I did some quick research, and in fact, there are 3,193 possible different ways (all counties and states added up) to manage the voting process. One last thing that Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith noted was that Texas has one of the worst voting turnouts in the nation.

The conclusion — voting is a big complex problem and it is an even bigger problem in Texas (because everything is bigger in Texas).

As the President spoke, I thought — yes, exactly! and holy cow, we just took on that problem here in El Paso County and had some pretty awesome results.

I’m part of a digital agency, Viva + Impulse Creative Co., that took the voting problem on in conjunction with the El Paso County Elections Department, to make an impactful change.

Last year we got word the El Paso County Elections Department was looking to revamp their website (pictured at the left). We met with them, sent them a proposal and were fortunate enough to be selected.

But from there, we didn’t discuss building a website because we recognize that technology can’t be a solution unless you know what problem or problems need to be solved. Instead, we discussed what goals the Elections Department wanted to achieve by bringing us in and updating their technology. We wanted to pinpoint the problem we both wanted to solve. And it was through our discussions that we learned about the voting process and came to the conclusion the problem we were aiming to solve was access — access to information about candidates, voting procedures and early voting locations. Specifically, the three goals that were developed for the project were to increase access to:

  • Information for young voters,
  • Information for Spanish speakers, and;
  • Location information for anyone who wanted to vote early.

All of these goals are critical to voter turnout because of the demographic makeup of El Paso County. As of 2014, the El Paso County population was 833,487 people, with 82.7% of the population identifying as Hispanic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 74.9% of the population 5 years and older speak another language different from English at home (overwhelming majority is Spanish) and approximately 32% of Spanish speakers in El Paso County have difficulty expressing themselves in English.

In addition to a large Spanish speaking population, El Paso has a growing millennial population, which accounts for 19% of the current population.

And the voting behaviors of El Paso County voters favor early voting, with early voting accounting for 55% of the votes in the 2012 general election and 54% of the votes in the 2012 primary election.

Recognizing the impact we could have on the 406,000 registered voters of El Paso County, we really wanted to get this right.

New site after redesign

We worked with the Elections Department to revamp their website that now allows users to find information in a more intuitive way by embracing modern design, translating and making language togglable (English or Spanish) with the click of a button and developed a new tool that allows users to locate the closest early voting location based on their current location using geo-location data — not their home address — with the idea being, no matter where you are, at lunch, running errands, or at work you can find the closest early voting location.

And the results we saw were huge. Like many parts of the country, the 2016 primary election saw a record number of voters. For El Paso County, there were 30,000 more voters compared to four years ago. While voter turnout is the ultimate conversion goal, we also saw high use of the website. From the Thursday prior to the primary to the Wednesday after we saw 192,173 page views, accounting for 95,109 unique page views with the average user spending one minute and seventeen seconds on the site. Accounting for 71.1% of the views were the “Where do I vote”, “Current Election” and “Am I registered to vote?” pages.

With these results, we are very proud to be able to provide a solution to one of the bigger problems local and state governments face — access to voting.

One of the most poignant statements that the President made was, “It’s not enough to just focus on the next cool thing. I will expect you to step up and get involved, because we need you.”

Look, I’m part of a small digital agency, eight of us in total, and we helped solve a problem and made a big impact on the voters of El Paso County and that’s all we could ask for. And it’s the sense of civic duty and impact you can have on thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of people that should be the ultimate payoff for people currently in the tech industry.

The President has called, I think it’s on us in the tech industry to answer, solve some big problems and make a giant impact.