Democracy at Your Fingertips
Columbia Political Review chatted with TurboVote Founder, Seth Flaxman, over the phone to learn more about what is being called the "Netflix of Voter Registration." CPR: How and why did you decide to start TurboVote?
Seth Flaxman: So in terms of the why, I experienced the voting system like millions of other people. At the time, I was a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government, and I was specifically there to study how the Internet had revolutionized everything but government. I took that impulse and that frustration and decided to create TurboVote while I was in grad school.
CPR: What problems with voting did you observe when you were a student at Columbia?
Flaxman: I was not an apathetic person, but I missed a lot of elections. When I was helping to create the Activist Council and then was student body president, I still missed a lot of elections – either I missed an administrative deadline or I didn’t send in the right form. There are a lot of different ways you can miss a deadline and not know about an election, and my experience in college was that it was hard to figure it out all out.
CPR: What is the general premise behind TurboVote and what are you working on now?
Flaxman: The big idea of TurboVote is that voting needs to start where we live for our democracy to work. You vote on a Tuesday because in the 18th century that was the most convenient day for land-owning farmers to vote, and the idea behind TurboVote is that you have to design a voting system that is easy for people to participate in, so we’re trying to make it easier for people – not to vote online – but to vote by mail. Our long-term vision is seamless vote by mail for every American where you can register to vote online, where you can apply to vote by mail online, and then your forms and ballot will be sent to you with an envelope. All you have to do is mail them back.
When people are voting by mail, they vote in a more informed way. You can also vote while you are on your laptop so that you don’t have the problem of going into the voting booth only for the top of the ticket and then not be aware of the other races going on at the time and also ballot initiatives. With a mailed ballot, you can research the candidate’s name, ask people on Facebook about ballot initiatives, and make it easier for people to vote in a more informed way.
This year we partnered with 57 colleges, including Columbia, and we also worked with Google, who linked TurboVote to its homepage. In terms of this year, we've been getting people to understand that we are out here, and we can make voting easier. We’re really excited that Columbia is not only one of our early adopter schools, but has put tremendous effort into getting students to sign-up.
CPR: Have you encountered any problems to get TurboVote to work within varying voting laws in different states?
Flaxman: TurboVote works best in states that allow you to vote by mail. There are 30 states and the District of Columbia where everyone can vote by mail. In every single state, a college student living away from home can vote by mail and TurboVote can be used to do so. We built the service to help people understand what the rules are where they live. In some cases, TurboVote becomes more helpful if there are special types of election laws so that we can help people understand what they are.
CPR: What is next for TurboVote for you and for TurboVote after the election?
Flaxman: Next year, 1) we will be partnering with even more colleges, and 2) we will be starting to sell the service to the local government. More people are having to vote in more types of elections so next year is interesting because we’re going to be able to help the 100,000 plus people signing-up now for TurboVote vote in their local elections and not forget about those because there is such a focus on presidential elections.
Elections in the United States are run by around 13,000 local governments – either counties or towns. No one has built technology for them. They don’t have money to attract venture capitalists and tech companies to build tools for local election administrators, and they don’t have money to hire great engineers themselves. We’re a non-profit that works to fill that gap so that we can help create a voting structure across the country and make voting easier for everybody.
Hopefully, we can help voters realize that an important part of democracy happens at the local level.