Shift Your Focus to Location When Voters Have Questions
By Oscar Loza - State and Local Government Industry Solutions Marketing Coordinator, Esri
Ever since I registered to vote, I've resorted to muscle memory to cast my ballot. However, this past election was a bit different. I received a notice in the mail that the polling place I usually went to would not be open for this year's general election. No problem; I knew that my county had an app to help me find a ballot drop box. With a couple of touches on my smartphone screen, the app pinned my location, and I found the drop box nearest to me. Later that week, I dropped off my ballot at a box in front of a store as I headed off to buy groceries.
In California, we had the primary elections right before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Even then, I recall having several questions leading up to Election Day, one of them being, Where do I drop off my ballot this time? Luckily, I had that app to answer my question, but how many other voters had the same questions that I had?
A major focus for many election departments this year, and probably every election in the future, is how best to update voters on the latest, ever-changing information. Addressing misinformation on how local government would keep voters safe, where voters could drop their ballots off, and how residents could register to vote by mail occupied most of the news this past election. Many governments turned to geographic information system (GIS) technology to redefine how they communicate with the public and centralize election information. Esri's ArcGIS Hub, the same community engagement platform that hundreds of governments use to keep their communities safe and informed during this pandemic, was now the same tool election offices were using to provide answers to the questions every voter had.
Helping Residents Vote with a Single Website
In Hudson County, New Jersey, there was a large focus on mail-in and early voting, requiring the positioning of ballot drop boxes throughout the county. The push for mail-in ballots was a pattern seen across every county in the country. With all these changes, the Hudson County Clerk's Office looked to GIS to help staff communicate what they were doing to keep voters safe while also explaining alternative voting options for the 2020 general election.
"We initially used ArcGIS Hub to update [residents] with the count of COVID-19 cases in the county earlier in the year; now that the focus has turned to elections, it was a matter of launching a new hub site with interactive maps that showed voters where they can vote," said Daryl Krasnuk, director of the Office of Digital Information at Hudson County. "Ultimately, the work we do means nothing if we can't put these apps into the hands of those who need answers. In less than three days, we launched the Hudson County Clerk's Office hub site, and the county was able to push this out quickly to voters via social media, press releases, etc."
Creating a shortened custom domain made it helpful to advertise a cleaner link to the public. Rather than telling residents to jump through several links on the county site, they were able to access a shortened link that was easy to memorize (vote2020.hcnj.us). As the election neared, the Hudson County Clerk's Office hub site saw an average of 1,500 views a day.
The recent federal election drew more voters than any previous election. Still, apps like ArcGIS Hub show the need to have a centralized location that uses location intelligence to increase voter turnout. During the next set of elections, even if they are municipal and local races, the county can quickly refresh its site and continue to use it as a source for hosting election results, voting location information, and more.
As Krasnuk states, "This digital bridge [ArcGIS Hub], if you will, has been beneficial in terms of collaborating with multiple departments and helping them deliver critical information into the hands of residents."
Smaller Counties Delivering Modern Voting Services
Election departments, no matter how small, are still responsible for ensuring efficient and safe elections. Counties in our country's rural parts must meet the same voter expectations as their peers in more populated regions do but with fewer resources.
Whiteside County, Illinois, has nearly 55,000 residents. In the past, the election and voter information on the election site was not easy to find. Residents had to spend a considerable amount of time before finding the exact information they needed.
"Our current Elections hub site makes it easier for [members of] the public to have access to everything they need to know before they go vote," said Lauren Lee, GIS coordinator for Whiteside County. "[By] providing [them with] these self-serving web maps, [residents] are no longer limited to the county clerk's office hours. Instead, they can find the same resources and services all within our hub site."
The county also expected an increase in vote-by-mail applications due to COVID-19, so staff embedded an ArcGIS Survey123 form, a web-based survey that allows for faster data collection, onto the site. Lee was able to configure the required fields and questions in the survey to efficiently process the applications and replace the mail-in process with a trustworthy digital solution.
"I am much happier with our user-friendly hub site and the information it provides to our voters," said Dana Nelson, Whiteside County clerk. "Through our web-based survey on the hub site, we processed over 1,000 applications for vote-by-mail ballots in an efficient manner."
About 500 miles northwest of Whiteside County, Illinois, is Wadena County, Minnesota. Wadena County holds a population of 13,000 within its county lines. The county has used interactive maps to share election information with residents before. During the 2016 general election, the county helped voters find their polling places, look up elected representatives, and find early voting sites with user-friendly GIS applications.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly amplified the need for digital, self-service solutions, prompting the county to move its applications from previous years onto a redesigned Elections hub site.
"This [ArcGIS Hub] is an excellent source for easy access to information on our smartphones, wherever we are," said Joy Weyer, elections coordinator for Wadena County. "We continually seek new ways to use technology to deliver better public services, so we're excited to embrace GIS to support safe voting and a more efficient elections process in this challenging year."
Weyer can provide simple answers to complex questions, such as where to vote and when. The location of voters directly impacts questions like these. Leading with a geographic approach ensures the county can deliver the right information to each voter every time.
The workload of election departments never really slows down. Attention to their workload heightens especially during an election year or in the middle of a pandemic, and it particularly intensifies when both of these events happen simultaneously. But ask yourself, how prepared are you to answer every voter's question in your next election? When most of the questions begin with the word where, it's best to shift your focus to location.