Students' web app seeks to simplify, modernize voter registration

September 22, 2016

Michael Patrick Rudder | MIT News

A solution for millennials by millennials, votemate takes the frustration out of registering to vote.

Votemate team photo

Caroline Mak (center bottom) said she was inspired to create an easier way to register to vote after her personal frustration in running a voter registration drive in Lobby 7 during Independent Activities Period (IAP) last January. She never knew if those who filled out a form actually voted, or if they took one to go, actually mailed it. Photo: Gretchen Ertl

Chances are you know more people who aren't voting than people who are.

In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 20 percent of those under 30 (often dubbed “millennials”) voted — despite huge efforts to increase turnout. Computer science major Caroline Mak doesn’t think the data necessarily point to the usual culprit: apathy. What’s her take? Poor user interface design.

“A lot of my friends and I were first-time voters this past primary, but there were way too many pieces to look up in different places,” she says. “From dealing with registration deadlines, forms, polling places, and polling hours to state variations, we cared a lot about voting, but we felt like we could’ve easily forgotten to register or vote in time.”

The current system of voter registration relies on an unwieldy combination of paper forms and state online websites, often requiring multiple portals for information. Moreover, the standard national voter database used to check registration status is inconsistent, lagging behind real-time registrations and even containing duplicates.

In response, Mak and four fellow MIT students — juniors Elaine Lin and Mitchell Gu and graduate students Keertan Kini '16 and Peter Su — as well as Scott Su of Microsoft and marketing specialist Brandon Uveges conceived of what could be called a solution for millennials by millennials. Votemate, a web app, simplifies and modernizes the registration process.

With an intuitive design and integration with many state-based voter registration websites (28 to date with the rest covered by the national database), users can more reliably confirm if they are registered to vote. Those who are unregistered receive a short sample registration form that displays only the information required to register and the registration deadline for the next election. Votemate users can even find the polling location for the next upcoming election and receive email reminders for it.

Other registration sites exist, says Kini, but are can be cluttered or filled with legalese. “With votemate, we wanted to ensure that our peers and anyone else new to the political process could engage in a familiar way. Our web app lowers the barriers to register, and, we hope, vote.”

The team is convinced that even small technology tweaks could help up attendance at the polls. In 2008, considered the first presidential election year when candidates embraced the Internet, half of the younger demographic voted. And yet, 21 percent of those between 18 and 24 years of age reported that they did not know how or where to register to vote, let alone the deadlines.

“It's really important for millenials to vote,” says Mak. “Millenials are now a larger generation than Baby Boomers. We want to make sure that being confused by voting doesn’t discourage people getting involved and making their voices heard — and that includes anyone who’s ever been frustrated with registering to vote.”

The period between now and the November presidential election will be crunch time for votemate. The team is tweaking and improving the site each day and taking advantage of resources around the Institute. The MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program provided some of the initial funding and advice. Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science who also heads up the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, has also served as an invaluable mentor and expert.

In addition to publicizing votemate to classmates across the MIT campus, the web app creators have plans to reach out to colleges and universities across the country. “If we can see that friends are helping other friends and they are motivating each other, then we will consider our work to be a success,” Mak says.

Read this article on MIT News.