Government Technology Magazine
Voting Made Easier
Jul 06, 2006
By Chad Vander Veen
One of the Founding Fathers' greatest ideas
was the notion of a state's rights. Each state can, for
the most part, make and pass laws without impacting other
Voting practices vary wildly from state to state, but when
considering that counties also mandate how an election takes
place, voting styles can vary exponentially, even from one
county to the next.
The most common disparity is how a citizen actually
votes. The subject of intense scrutiny in recent elections,
voters may choose their candidate on a punch card, an optical-scan
ballot or an electronic voting machine.
Learning about candidates and ballot issues also varies by state
and county. Most citizens are familiar with sample ballots,
which are mailed to registered voters. This gives voters a comprehensive
first look at the candidates and issues on which they can vote.
Some states, however, do not require county elections boards
to distribute sample ballots. One such sample ballot-free county
in Ohio has implemented a new online service to change the way
citizens vote. Where once there were no sample ballots, such
information is now available online.
Located in the northwestern corner of Ohio, Putnam County, home
to approximately 35,000 residents, has made a big change in
how elections are conducted.
In March 2006, the Putnam County Board of Elections implemented
a software called GeoElections WebTools, created by Florida-based
International Computer Works. (ICW). The software presents county
governments with an innovative way to not only offer sample
ballots online, but also a new way to manage all aspects of
"We first learned about the mapping system at an election conference
in Columbus about four years ago," recalled Ginger Price, director
of Putnam County's Board of Elections. "Our voter-registration
vendor had partnered with ICW, and it was actually our voter-registration
vendor who told me about it and did a demonstration of it. I
was quite impressed."
The software is essentially an electronic package for managing
elections. Every election year, officials face the challenges
of incorporating new streets, new voters and other variables
into their voter registration system. For small counties like
Putnam, the task can be overwhelming.
Development of the software began in 1995 as a project ICW took
on for Wyoming. The original goal was to develop mapping software
for county elections clerks to make edits to the U.S. Census
Bureau files called topologically integrated geographic encoding
and referencing (TIGER/Lines).
TIGER/Line files are rudimentary, electronic topological maps
that were developed and used by the Census Bureau in 2000. The
TIGER files, as they are commonly known, are not the visual
maps we're accustomed to today. Instead, they are data sets
that describe maps and require a GIS tool to be displayed.
Though the Census Bureau acknowledges on its Web site that TIGER
files are created using outdated technology, they are, as ICW
discovered, still useful for a base map on which to overlay
modern GIS tools and mapping data.
"We start with the raw TIGER file, and sometimes we get 911
data, parcel maps or aerial photos, and we bring the TIGER [file]
up to the level of exactness that is required for this type
of application," said ICW CEO Ken Tozier. "We interoperate with
voter registration systems. So from our GIS stuff, our TIGER
editing tools and GeoElections, we export a file." If counties
add a street to the map, they can transactionally export it,
and it's imported into the voter-registration system, Tozier
said, so if a voter who lives on that street comes in to register
to vote, that request for registration can be processed.
Along with mapping geopolitical features, the software also
gives Putnam County the ability to offer online sample ballots
that are specific to an address. By visiting the county's Web
site, residents can simply enter their address to pull up
a map of their district. Once at the Web site, voters can find
out pertinent information about the voting process.
When a resident enters an address, a map will appear with numerous
animated symbols, each indicating specific information. A blue
dot represents the user's address and a red star indicates the
polling place. The user can also find information such as current
elected officials, candidates for office, the sample ballot
for each party, election calendars, precinct maps and voter-registration
"We can just send [sample ballots] to the Internet, and it saves
us a lot of time," Price said. "It eliminates us having to do
the research, look things up, make copies, put things together,
mail it out and all that. So it's a cost-savings there." Voters
can even pull up their specific ballots and print them off.
"It leaves us out of the picture, really, other than the fact
we've spent all the time and energy putting this stuff on there
prior to an election," Price said. "It saves us time when we're
closer to an election."
In addition to election management and mapping tools, GeoElections
WebTools also includes a feature that, while not yet proven
useful, is certainly creative: a built-in lesson plan for teachers
to use in the classroom. Access to the lesson plan can be gained
through the "Maps and More" link on the county Web site, and
by then clicking the "Just for Teachers!" button at the bottom
of the page.
The lesson plan breaks down what elections are and how they
work while incorporating interactivity with the Web site. The
lesson plan also provides instructions on how to hold a mock
election using printed sample ballots and includes worksheets,
vocabulary words and computer lab activities.
ICW incorporated the lesson plan into the Web site after surveying
civics teachers throughout Florida, asking them how useful a
lesson plan would be -- the results made a compelling case for
"It's the younger people who really like to go online and do
everything that way," Price said. "There are some teachers out
there who are interested in teaching the younger ones about
voting. It's kind of exciting, I think, to go online and put
in your mom and dad's address and actually see what they're
going to be voting on."