Democracy in the Internet Age – Kathryn Peters | The Open Mind

Democracy in the Internet Age – Kathryn Peters | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner,
your host on The Open Mind. The democratization of
our electoral process is the subject today. We’ll consider the
state of American voting infrastructure with
the leading non-profit registering the next
generation of voters, and spearheading a
campaign to achieve an 80 percent, yes,
I said 80 percent, voter turnout in the
US by the year 2024. Founded in 2010, Democracy
Works is a team of software developers,
public policy wonks, and civic organizers
dedicated to the idea that voting should fit
the way we live. They’re building tools
needed to upgrade the voting experience. Its primary
service, TurboVote, helps voters register,
stay registered, and cast a ballot in
every election From
municipal to national. TurboVote signed up its
millionth voter in 2016. “Our vision is
straightforward: make voting a seamless
experience for all Americans, so that no
one misses an election.” And today we’re delighted to
welcome Democracy Works co-founder and chief
operating officer, Kathryn Peters She’s
worked on the front lines of democracy, from
grassroots organizing in rural Missouri, to
voting rights monitoring in Afghanistan alongside
US political campaigns and the UN’s department
of Safety and Security. Kathryn, a pleasure to
welcome you here today. PETERS: Thanks so much. HEFFNER: Your work was
founded out of a real passion for your fellow
citizen so that you could really be your
voter’s keeper. PETERS: Absolutely. HEFFNER: And ensure
that there is as close to full participation in
this country as possible. That was the mission,
and you’re citing that historically if you go
back to New Deal era, really since the
full enfranchisement, we had significantly
better turnout. PETERS: After every
federal election cycle, the census bureau
polls non-voters. And they ask
them directly, why didn’t you vote? And the answers are many,
but when you categorize them, there are small
numbers who will say they feel alienated by the
system or that there wasn’t a choice that
really mattered to them. But the majority, two
thirds of answers come down to process. I missed the deadline
to update my voter registration after a move. I missed the transit
options that would’ve gotten me to the polls. My work hours changed,
and I didn’t have an opportunity to get there. I was traveling and hadn’t
thought to request an absentee ballot. So, among the many things
that you can do to change turnout, or to
improve turnout, modernizing voting, and
bringing it in line with our lives as we live
them today is a really important part of
improving turnout. HEFFNER: And ultimately
you’re seeking to improve turnout because you
believe that our democracy depends on American’s
participation in the process. PETERS: That’s
absolutely correct. I think when all
of us have a say, we get a more
representative system, we get more elected officials
who look like us. We get the
decisions that we value. When fewer people
participate it’s easier for the system not
to be responsive, especially to those
who aren’t taking part. HEFFNER: To give our
viewers a sense of history over the last
three election cycles, in 2008, there was a significant
uptick in participation. In 2012, there was
a slight decline. In 2016, in certain
states it was depressed, in certain states it
improved, but not markedly so. Voting in 2012 and 2016
paralleled each other. Your aspiring by 2024,
to go from under half, less than half
Americans participating, to closer to full
participation, 80 percent. TurboVote is one piece of
your efforts to enlist, especially young people
and newly registered voters. What are the other
components as part of your strategy to use
technology and human capital to improve
turnout? PETERS: TurboVote is a
valuable starting point because it lets us
serve voters directly. As we’re helping register
people and we’re sending them reminders, they’re
writing back to us and they’re asking
direct questions. And we are having those
conversations with people who want to know, I
was once convicted of a felony, am I
eligible to vote again? Or, I have limited
mobility and I’m not sure how to know if I’ll be able to
get into my polling place. And those kinds of
conversations have given us new ideas, and
generate in many ways a prioritization of how
we can better help. And what areas the
process can improve. From there, we’re able to work
with a huge number of partners. So through the
TurboVote challenge, we bring in
large corporations. Google,
Facebook, Starbucks, and can discuss how they
can engage their customers and also their
employees to register. One of the pieces that we
hear are people feeling that they’ve never felt
welcome at the polls, or welcome voting, and so that
element of invitation. Asking people to come in,
asking them to have their voice heard, is a place
where there’s room for many non-traditionally civic
actors to really get involved. We also work heavily with local
and state election officials. We have an entire election
administration team within the organization where we
can help them release data in open formats. So on the voting
information project, our work helps publish
every polling place in the country, every
federal election cycle, and for many state
and locals as well. With Ballot Scout, we’re
able to work with the states of Oregon and
Virginia to track every absentee ballot
through the mail. So that voters can
know that their ballot is coming, they can know
that it was received. In Oregon especially, they can
know that it was counted. That’s a really valuable
piece of feedback that again, reinforces the
positive elements of voting and can help
more people turn out. We’re continuing to
work with election administrators to build
tools that help make their workflows easier,
and help them better serve their voters according to
our shared priorities. HEFFNER: TurboVote
is an essential tool. For our viewers who
haven’t been on the site, you can
navigate the process. You can register to
vote wherever you live, it’s an open resource. PETERS: It’s very simple. We ask for your name, we
ask how to contact you, a cellphone or an
e-mail address. And we’ll start with
“Where do you live?” And based on that we can
help you register to vote, update your
voter registration, track all of
your elections, know when to vote
early, or on election day, or by mail, or
absentee as need be, and based on the rules. So that however the system
works where you live, we can help make it
easier to navigate. HEFFNER: That
guide is important. Beyond that
guide, we had here, Anita Earls, and we’ve
had other people who are describing the
obstacles to voters. Some of them
are based on age, based on status,
socio-economic status, based on race, barriers
that still exist in this country when it comes
to access to the polls. But the number one factor
according to the studies, and you can correct me if
I’m wrong, is same-day voting. When you have
same-day voting, you see markedly
increased turnout. PETERS: I believe that
there is not a silver bullet to
solving participation. I do agree that same day
registration at the polls is one really
valuable tool. I think in terms of
designing elections to serve the voters and offer
them the best possible options, I would
look to Colorado. They passed a series of
reforms that allow for sending every registered
voter a ballot in advance of the election by mail
that they can mail back or drop at a drop box. They stand up what they
call voter service and polling centers, where you
can come and you can get registered in person, or
you can cast your ballot right there if you’ve made
an error with your mail one, or one didn’t come,
or if you have questions and you want to
talk to a person. Some people really value
that in-person experience. And so they’re able to
provide multiple options, multiple paths to voting,
and significant direct outreach that let voters
choose the ways that fit their lives and suit them. And I would say that all
of those things together make a huge difference,
and I wouldn’t necessarily choose one element of that and
implement only a part of it. I’ve been really excited
to see how those become, sort of, create
virtuous cycles even among themselves in how you
can engage voters and give them choices. HEFFNER: In
several states, there’s been legislation,
some of which has been approved to give citizens
automatic voter registration. Where does that play in your
advocacy of voting rights? PETERS: I’d love to say
briefly that we don’t conduct any advocacy for
particular policies or for voting rights generally. We are very much a
software building and implementation of policy
kind of organization. Automatic voter
registration is still so new that it’s hard to know
what its impact on turnout is, but anything that
allows the states to engage effectively with
their citizens and insure that everyone is
registered to vote at the correct address, under
the correct identity information and
ready to participate
is really valuable. I think AVR as it’s
being implemented in some states, could really do,
could really be an amazing step toward that. I also think that projects
like the electronic registration and
information center collaboration is also an
important step in that
direction. It brings together, I
believe, 25 states now. To compare their
voter rolls, look for voters who have
died or moved in state or out of state, and
allows them to clean old information off of the
voter file while also reaching out to would-be voters
who aren’t yet current. And helping them get
registered and up to date. And so I think outreach,
direct from election officials, in
whatever form that takes. It’s a postcard after you
get your driver’s license saying, by the way we’ve put you
on the voter file, welcome. Or whether that’s a
postcard from an ERIC update, that says it
looks like you’ve moved to our state and haven’t
registered to vote here yet, would you like to? That kind of engagement,
and that kind of invitation really
matters a great deal. HEFFNER: You’re tracking
the software and the technology associated
with the registration and voting process. Experts say that our systems are
still terribly obsolete. However, the great
promise of e-democracy, like e-commerce as being
the solution now has seen reality, which is
technology can be hijacking the political
process in a way that is unhealthy
to democracy. So now that our position
has been hardened when it comes to technology, that it
can be a force for good or bad in marring
electoral processes. How can you assess the
infrastructure of our voting at this moment gearing up
for these 28 contests? PETERS: Software and
hardware are tools. It’s true, you can use
them for good and for ill. Going into 2018, the
conversation among election officials is
overwhelmingly about security. It’s very exciting that
the federal government reallocated new HAVA funds
to help support this. There are working groups
engaging each of the states and their election offices
directly with DHS for example. And I think that focus
matters a great deal. After 2016, I think the
public wants very clear reassurance that their
votes are going to be counted as they were cast. And I believe that the
election community and election administrators are
doing everything they can. Both to ensure that that
is absolutely the case, and that they can
communicate that effectively, so that
voters retain trust in how elections are run. So that is a significant element
of our work this year. It’s a significant element
of the work that the National Association of
State Election Directors is doing this year. And it’s one way of
ensuring that the tools are all
working as expected. HEFFNER: And from your
conversations with state election officials, is
it the conclusive verdict that paper trail
should be preserved? We need to
preserve paper trails. PETERS: Being able to
audit election results is one important
factor in verifying. We’re working, we will
soon be working with the state of Colorado to build
a risk limiting audit system, and allow them
to conduct exactly that, a review of the votes and the
counts that they were correct. I think that’s a valuable
element that many states rely on in verifying
their election results and presenting them
to the public. HEFFNER: Computing
electronically there is not necessarily the
firewall to check the tabulations in a way that
you can assess whether or not a computer virus
infected a polling site. Whereas you can literally
still see the… I see you’re ambivalent
because on the one hand, I mean this is the… PETERS: Audits are very
important, and I think it’s
valuable that every state is able to do so. I know that there are
jurisdictions that don’t have paper trails, and
I’m not a detailed enough expert in their machines
to understand how they provide those same audits. But I don’t believe that
they completely lack those mechanisms, I think they
have alternate ways of doing so and I would, I
would feel ill-informed suggesting that any of
those jurisdictions are completely unable to
verify those things. There’s always some
ability to audit the technology and
understand what happened. And so the scenario where
someone hacked into a voting machine without a
paper trail with a virus, and didn’t get caught
is a terrifying one. And I don’t
believe is the, is necessarily the
threat that… HEFFNER: Well it almost,
it predates voting… PETERS: It feels scarier than I
think it is likely to be. HEFFNER: It potentially
predates voting in that the state offices that
manage the voter rolls could be subject to those
viruses and folks who are registered lawfully could
be pulled off in the weeks or days anticipating
an election. And so the auditing is
not even just specific to election day, that’s a
process of safe-guarding citizens voting
rights from weeks before. And it’s an
everyday challenge. But, I see your
ambivalence because at the same time you’re using
technology with TurboVote and Democracy Works to
improve the process. So we’re at this kind of
impasse where we fear that technology can be that villain,
it can do quite massive ill, but I’m still thinking about
that 80 percent number. And I’m thinking about it
parallel to Facebook or other social network sites
that were able to accrue over years that kind
of subscriber base. So what are ways that you
want to further engage the technology constructively so
that you can get to 80 percent or total
voter participation? PETERS: The technology
is still simply a tool. When we’re talking about
engaging with technology platforms like Facebook
or Google or Snapchat, it’s important that
everything is being designed around
people and for people. And so when Facebook is
being really effective right now
around elections, it is that they are
including reminders in the newsfeed that
say, not only, there’s an election coming
up and you can register. But will say things like,
your friend is running a voter registration drive,
and they’re trying to register five
other people to vote. Would you like to
be one of them? And I think it’s a very
important piece that it isn’t necessarily
Facebook suggesting voter registration in that case. It’s my friend Sam,
it’s my friend Kate. And I really love that
technology when it’s working well gets out of
the way and lets us be in a community with one
another and lets us be citizens together. And so that’s one small
example among others. But I would say that
especially with the companies that do
social relationships, that’s a very
easy way to do it. And it doesn’t always
have to be technology. Starbucks was putting an
invitation to register to vote on their cup
sleeves in 2016. And I think that kind
of interaction may be, it’s less easy to click on
a cup sleeve and it’s less easy to follow through,
but I think it’s a valuable message, and I
think it’s a valuable invitation to put out. I keep using that word,
but being able to make people feel welcome. The technology is only a very
small element of that. HEFFNER: You’re
talking about people. I can’t let you leave
here without talking about people and the fact that
the people have voted for candidates and campaigns
that are anti-democratic in
nature. Not just in this
country, around the world. So, you must be getting
some pushback when you’re making the argument about
fuller participation when the people are the ones
who are more often than not now,
electing autocrats… PETERS: I recognize that there
are cycles in any nations political
history in which it, we find sort of common
ground in many ways by leaning one direction
and then to another. I think that the current
trends in our particular representatives are
part of this moment, and I don’t necessarily
believe that there is any trend leading toward
autocratic government. I think all of us being
involved is an important protection against that
because as more people have a voice, and as
they become involved, they tend also to
become better informed, to get engaged in
following what’s happening and to have an ongoing
stake in that system. I think voting tends to
be an easy entry way to a more active civic life. And it’s not the
end, and so 80 percent participation doesn’t just
mean that everyone comes out every other November
and casts a ballot, and then goes home and
lets the system do what it’s going to do. I think if we get to 80
percent participation, the real vision then, is
more people choosing to run for the school
board, and more people petitioning for and
getting involved as volunteers with local
participatory budgeting processes, and more people
finding ways to move their communities forward together
that all tie into voting. And all tie in to our
democratic systems but that don’t end at
the ballot box. And so I think all of
those together make for a much richer
tapestry of civic life. HEFFNER: Well
Kathryn that’s reassuring, so I appreciate that and I think
our viewers will too. In the final analysis, I
also have to ask you this: In our lifetimes, will
we be voting online? PETERS: I’m not sure. Right now, the analogy
is often made to banking. And banking online is
spectacularly easy. I love it. My debit card is tied to an
app on my phone and I track it. But there is still
significant amount of fraud and error that
takes place there. And the value that
that provides to us as individual consumers
is so much greater that it’s worth
those costs. HEFFNER:
Greater than what? PETERS: Greater than the
cost of the occasional thefts that do
take place, right? HEFFNER: Okay, I see
what you’re saying. PETERS: Bank… HEFFNER: But I was
confused because you’re not saying that the
value of the voting online would be inferior, I’ll let you
continue I’m sorry… PETERS: No it’s okay. So the analogy is
that online banking, I think, the convenience
and the ability to move money in these ways is
so great that the cost of fraud and of error and
of hacking is worth it. In an election, I would
suspect that most every citizen would say, even
one error in that count, even one error
in the outcome, would undermine
the entire system. And so that difference
in margin makes it a much harder thing to build. And at present, I don’t
think that I’ve seen the systems for doing
identity verification while preserving a
secret ballot. It’s really hard to know
that I’m Kathryn Peters and that I’m an
eligible voter, and that I get
just this one vote, and then later being able
to count that privately. I think we’ve gotten attached to
our secret votes. I wouldn’t give it up. And so I know that
there are some very, very smart minds and talented
cryptographers working on it. I suspect there’s an
eventual solution. Until there is an
effective system for doing that, a zero error rate, I
believe that systems like voting by mail and voting
early and vote centers and a variety of options will
allow us to have that, in many ways, that same
richness of opportunity to vote while potentially
keeping it a more personal and a much more
human interaction. There are studies that
show that people who vote in schools are sometimes
more likely to vote positively on
school bond referenda. I think the places where we live
our civic lives matter. And to some degree being
able to keep that in real life and on paper may
have benefits we haven’t understood yet. If nothing else, I
would miss the stickers. HEFFNER:I asked you will it
happen in our lifetimes? Should it happen
in our lifetimes? PETERS: As always,
technology is the tool. It may be possible to
design an online voting experience that brings
some of those benefits of connection and
of community. Right now the idea of
casting my ballot by swiping on my phone
feels emptier to me. And I really love the
experience of walking to my polling place. HEFFNER: It would
open the floodgates, in the same breath, if you
can develop a foolproof technologically
superior model, there are folks on the FEC who
have deliberated about this. But my problem as we
close here Kathryn, is just that I don’t hear enough
people talking about it. And I haven’t
for a long time. And so now the energy
is void of the idea that the technology could
be a prosocial as opposed to anti-social or
anti-democratic force. Since ’16, and
looking towards ’18, are you more confident in
our technology’s capacity to right the wrong? PETERS: On the internet it’s
hard to know who’s a person. Anywhere where technology
is legitimately connecting us to one another, I
think it can be positive. And in the moments
where it is not, especially when we
believe that it is, I think that’s a
real challenge, and I think it’s one that
the social media companies in particular are
still grappling with. I am excited to see
them engaging with those questions and asking those
questions of themselves and of one another. And I think 2018 is the
first step in many years of defining how these
should work and how they should connect us. HEFFNER: The anonymity is
a real killer isn’t it. PETERS: It can be. HEFFNER: Anyone who’s
seeking to register to vote, how can they get on
TurboVote and go through the process seamlessly. PETERS: It’s
really simple. The site is at
turbovote.org. And from there, we’ll
start by asking you who you are and how to reach
you and where you live. And the whole process takes
about two minutes to sign up. HEFFNER: And you will
direct them to the boards of election of any county
of any city of any state so that it’s basically
going to Amazon or IMDB for voting, and that
the process is immediate. Then you have your
absentee ballot or you have your voter
application form. PETERS: You’re making
my pitch for me, yes. If your state offers
online voter registration, we’ll connect you to it. If they don’t, or if
you prefer to use paper, we’ll give you a national
voter registration form filled in for
you to print out. HEFFNER: And
you will mail it? Or will they get
it from the states? PETERS: Users can print
and mail that themselves. It will still need
your signature on it, especially if
you’re using paper. That’s an important way
of verifying identity. HEFFNER: There we
go, back to identity. Kathryn, pleasure
being with you today. Thanks for your time. PETERS: Thank you. HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience, I hope you join us again
next time for a thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit the
open mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to
view this program online or to access over
1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on
Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates
on future programming.

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