iPads will help Alabama voters in 15 counties get to the right polling places

Credit: Stu Spifack via Flickr

During every election, poll workers in Morgan County, Ala., would experience a big problem: some voters would arrive and their names couldn't be found on the voter registration lists in many of the county's 44 voting precincts. That would then mean a scramble to try to reach someone by telephone back at the county Board of Registrars office – on a very busy day – to find out where the voter was actually registered.

On Election Day, especially during Presidential elections when voter turnout is usually much higher, those kinds of last-minute requests really put pressure on employees in the overwhelmed Registrar's office, said county probate Judge Greg Cain.

"You had to call the Registrars Office and have it looked up, then convey it to the voter," said Cain. "It was quite a time-consuming task. With 71,000 registered voters and 44 precincts in the county, that could amount to a ton of phone calls, many of which would get a busy signal or be put on hold. We actually had several voters get frustrated and just leave without voting."

There had to be a better way, said Cain.

After three years spent investigating methods to streamline the process, Morgan County started using Apple iPads and a custom software app earlier this year during the March Primary Election to make the process simpler. Now election workers can get that information right on their iPad, without any calls to the Registrar's Office, making it much faster to help voters find their correct precincts.  

The main technical problem that took so long to solve was that the state maintains the database of voter registration in Alabama and only allows election officials in the state's 67 counties to gain access to certain data fields for custom data sorting, said Cain. "There are a limited number of people in the county who can see that information due to privacy issues," he said.

"What I was looking for was a system that could allow us to extract the data for the poll workers to use that was easy and accessible," said Cain. Simple was important because many of the poll workers are retired people who are not as savvy with computers and technology. That meant avoiding laptop computers due to their smaller keyboards, potentially confusing interfaces and more complicated nature. "I was looking for something that was user-friendly."

First he tried ways of accessing the voter registration information using an Android device, but he couldn't find an app that would easily work on Android to solve the problem. One Android app required him to export the data, send it to the vendor for conversion, and then download it to each device for use.  

"That was way too complicated and I wasn't comfortable sending that information out," said Cain. "I wanted some we could control in-house."

His experiments led him to a simple database app from Bento that would work with Apple devices, but it didn't provide enough detail and flexibility.  That failure, however, led to his finding an answer that did ultimately help solve the problem – Bento's parent company, Filemaker, had a mobile product that could be integrated with the data so it could work on Apple devices, providing the means to get the voter registration information to each of the county's precincts.

Cain brought in the county's software consultants, Mirus Group, and in six weeks Mirus built a first version of the needed app for testing, using Filemaker Pro.

The app, called the Election Information System (EIS), was developed for about $20,000, said Stephen Weber, the owner of Mirus Group. They could have developed and distributed the app using Apple's App Store, but that option was dropped because they had a short timeframe from which to work before the March primary election, said Weber. With the App Store, they'd have had to submit the app and then undergo an approval process from Apple, which would have likely taken too much time. The developers also looked at using Apple's own developer's tool kit for native apps, as well as other options, but Filemaker was ultimately seen as the faster and simplest way to go under the time restraints the county was facing.

The Filemaker app now allows election workers to run custom inquiries on the database information to do their work more efficiently for every election, said Weber. "Now that the data has been extracted into a relational database, they can run their own analyses using plug-ins from Microsoft Excel, such as how many ballot styles do they need for each precinct, or what's the age distribution of voters by polling place," said Weber.

Fourteen other Alabama counties will be using the EIS app on iPads in the Nov. 6 election, with one iPad in each precinct, according to Weber.

The project came at a good time for Mirus Group as they were beginning to eye the Apple iOS marketplace. "We wanted to start writing apps for iPads and saw [the Morgan County project] it as an opportunity," said Weber. "So we started playing with it and working with it."

The app was a big success during the March primary, according to Judge Cain. "The first time we used it in the primary, the Board of Registrars told me that we probably cut down on the phone calls they received about voter registrations on Election Day by 75 percent."

Among the features they also built into the custom voter registration app is an easy search engine to allow election workers to get answers quickly to their queries during an election, said Cain. That meant that any inquiry would need no more than two or three touches on the iPad touch screen to give a needed answer.

The data downloaded onto each iPad uses security features built into Filemaker that allow remote data wiping and lock down in case a device is lost or stolen. The app is also programmed to lock itself down at a set time after an election to further protect the data, said Cain.

The county is still looking for more ways to use the iPads to improve elections even more, he said. Training manuals for elections officials will be installed on the iPads for easy reference when needed, as well as other additional instructions.

The iPad project in Morgan County is a topical example of how popular consumer technologies are being adapted to help solve real-world governmental and business problems. These same approaches could easily be adapted to enterprise-level needs, using similar creativity and vision.

Looking into the possibilities with open eyes was a key, said Judge Cain.

"I'm even using the iPad to record court hearings I have to record in different locations," he said. "We're utilizing it that way to capture that information.  We started looking at it for certain tasks and we're finding out it's able to do much more than we thought it could."

In Tuesday's election, some 54,000 voters, or about 78 percent of the county's 71,000 eligible voters, are expected to cast their ballots, according to Cain. "We're hoping for a less stressful Election Day," he said.

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