Breathing New Life into the Oldest Civic Duty
America has one of the most decentralized election systems in the world, with over 8,000 entities responsible for administering them. Meet the Obama Foundation Fellow who's improving voter turnout by helping big tech platforms give voters the information they need.
What’s the typical voting process like in the United States? First, you find out if you’re eligible to vote in your state. Then, you find out if you’re already registered. If you’re not, you’ll need to register. Then you’ll need to locate your polling place (there are probably dozens in your community, but you might only be able to vote at one). Then you need to figure out what races are on your ballot and the candidates you want to support (and depending on your state, you may have a few state referenda, propositions, or ballot initiatives to consider as well). Then, depending on your state and county, you may be able to vote early, either by mail or in person. But if you vote on election day, you’ll need to arrange transportation to your polling place during a work day, at a convenient time. Then you finally fill out your ballot (using a pen, a punch card, or an electronic voting machine) and submit it.
With a process like that, it’s no wonder voter turnout in the United States is so low. In fact, around 40 percent of the population who are eligible to vote consistently don’t, for a number of reasons, among them: disillusionment, work schedules, long wait times, and a process that can be difficult to navigate or understand.
California native and Chicago transplant Tiana Epps-Johnson is doing her part to fix this issue by helping local governments and election officials get their hands on the most up-to-date tools, and helping voters get the most up-to-date information. And that makes the American franchise a little easier for everyone to exercise.
Q: What would you say inspired you to get involved in this work?
A: When I was in college, I studied “abroad” in Washington D.C. and worked at an organization called the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. They have this amazing election protection hotline that people can call if they run into challenges when they’re going to cast a ballot. I was helping answer some of those phone calls, and I was really surprised by the number of people who called in asking really basic questions about the process. “Where do I vote?” “How do I get registered?” “Where can I find out more about what’s on my ballot?”
I was even more surprised to find out how challenging it was for me—as someone who was there to help folks figure this stuff out—to find the answers to those questions. So it became really important to me to find a way to fill that information gap to ensure every person can participate in the voting process, regardless of who they’re voting for. I guess you could say that’s when the idea for the Center for Technology and Civic Life Opens in a new tab was born.
Q: And can you tell me what the Center for Technology and Civic Life is and what it does?
A: The Center for Technology and Civic Life Opens in a new tab is a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Chicago. We recognize that voting is one of the most important levers that we have on shaping our communities, so we focus on training election officials across the country on how to use technology to be more effective at engaging and informing the voters in their communities. One of our core projects, the Ballot Information Project, focuses on making sure that everybody in the country has the information they need to cast an informed ballot, from the top of the ticket all the way down.
Hear Tiana explain how the Center for Technology and Civic Life does this:
Q: And why did you bring the Center for Technology and Civic Life to Chicago?
A: When my two co-founders and I were thinking about where we would want to start the Center, we had a list of several cities across the United States. We kept coming back to Chicago. There were some personal reasons—I love good food and I had watched a season of Top Chef where half of the chefs were from Chicago and I was like “I have to live there one day.” (laughter)
But we really settled on Chicago because we do a lot of traveling to meet local election officials where they are and you can get just about anywhere in the country by lunchtime from Chicago. We’ve been welcomed to this city in a super warm way. We started as a staff of four working from home, and people across the city offered us office space and were able to help us connect with local communities so we could grow deeper and deeper relationships with organizations and people who make Chicago what it is. This city is a really special place.
Q: Your work deals a lot with local governments. Can you tell me more about how you engage with them?
A: When we work directly with local governments, most of our time is spent providing direct training on data analytics, digital strategy, and design skills for engagement. What that looks like is us exploring how to use social media for voter engagement so folks can find the information they need online directly from their government officials. Other times it’s more basic training on how to make sure you have the right number of voting machines and the right number of staff in a polling place to avoid long lines.
We’re also really focused on accessible information, from making sure someone with low vision or no vision can still find information on a screen reader to making sure everything is written in plain language so that it’s easily understandable by folks at a variety of literacy levels and can be easily translated.
Q: And what does success look like in your work?
A: Well, in 2016 our data powered ballot information tools that reached as many as 65 million voters. That was a really big accomplishment for us, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow that reach.
Q: For people out there who are reading this and thinking about getting involved in the hard work of change, is there anything you know now that you wish you would have known when you were first starting out?
A: I think one of the things I know now that I wish I would have from the start is how important it is to build relationships with the people in the communities you’re working with. For us, the relationships we have with local government and with our partners are our most important asset. It allows us to stay really grounded in the real challenges folks in government and voters are facing. By staying grounded and seeing intersections between those groups, we’re able to keep our work really relevant to the needs of the public.
Q: Building on that, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
A: Oh, man. The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from a friend. I was a little intimidated about the fundraising aspect of my work, and she made a really good point about making big asks, because making an ask for a relatively small amount of money takes as much work and as much effort from a funder’s perspective as it does to make an ask that’s five times bigger. So, you might as well start with the ask that’s five times bigger. It’s really stuck with me over time.
Q: What would you say to people who don’t think voting is important?
A: Hmm. That’s a good question. I heard this a while ago and thought it was really tight and compelling. It was something like “you can opt out of the act of voting, but you can’t opt out of the outcome.” Living in a community and not engaging means living with the decision makers that you chose not to engage with, so it’s important to have a say in the direction you want your community to go in at the beginning. The best way to do that is by voting.
Q: To close, what has the Obama Foundation Fellowship experience been like for you and the Center? How do you think the Fellowship will impact your work?
Oh my goodness. This experience has been overwhelming in such an amazing way, in particular, just being surrounded by so many brilliant people who are genuinely kind. I’ve never been able to make connections as quickly and as comfortably as I’ve been able to with my other Fellows.
When this fellowship ends, I think it will be meaningful to look back on this personal roadmap I’ve been building as a part of this program. For me, I really want to grow in the ways I’m able to tell the story of the work we’re doing, and I hope the organization is able to bring in new partnerships and grow our reach. I hope we’ll continue to have an impact on the voting system for many years to come as organization with staying power.
You can learn more about Tiana and meet our other current class of Fellows here.