Kathryn Peters

Democracy in the Internet Age

Air Date: July 14, 2018

Democracy Works cofounder Kathryn Peters talks about election security, voter registration and democratization of the electoral process.


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.


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.

HOST: Alexander Heffner
Guest: Kathryn Peters

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.