Voter Empowerment?

Austin's ThinkVoting has an app for that

Joseph Santori
Joseph Santori

Thanks in part to aggressive voter registration efforts this year, a record number of Texans – 14,025,441 – are registered to vote in the current gubernatorial election, according to the Texas Secretary of State's office. And the view from day three of early voting suggests it will indeed be a big turnout. For a nonpresidential election. In Texas.

Texas is, after all, one of the most pathetically apathetic states in the union when it comes to voting.

Roughly half of all registered voters turned out in the 2012 presidential elections. That number takes a dive during statewide elections. Of 19 million adults in Texas this year, only 13.6 were registered to vote at the time of the March primary. Fewer than 2 million did so.

A new smartphone app hopes to change that.

“I had this grandiose plan for a tool by the people for the people,” said local musician and gaming designer Joseph Santori, founder of the voter-empowerment effort at ThinkVoting.

By his own account, Santori hasn't exactly been a portrait of civic duties fulfilled. Rather, he considers his former self “an average citizen.” He doesn't mean that in a nice way either.

“My voting record was relatively spotty. I'm not a politico. I voted when the news made me feel like I wanted to vote or was guilted into it,” he said.

His conversion began after being hired in 2012 by the Texas Secretary of State's office to develop a statewide voting app that became VoteTexas. Little he wanted to include found its way into the final product due to tangled debates over potential bias. Linking to candidate websites was resisted by state employees because, he said, it was feared it would seem the SOS was favoring candidates with websites. “There were disputes over where to put a comma in some of the copy that went in. It was like working with both hands tied behind my back and my tongue tied,” he said.

With the launch of the Voting App (an iPhone version went up Tuesday; the Google store version is pending), Santori's broader vision is finding expression.

By typing in their location, users can easily view their ballots, examine candidate positions and ballot initiatives, and locate their polling location. This week's launch covers the range of races affecting the Austin area but won't spread to other metros until next year. Plans are to go national in time for the presidential elections in 2016.

Currently, the Voting App draws much of its information from League of Women Voters research, but the team expects to aggregate from as many sources as possible as they ramp up to a nationwide presence.

After beginning that SOS gig, Santori started paying a lot more attention to politics. All that he learned about low voter turnout colored his take on the sea of commenters on those Yahoo News stories he was reading.

“Anything that I saw that had to do with politics had this rampant trolling,” he said. “At the same time I knew what the voting turnout rate was. I'm pretty sure a large majority of them didn't participate in the election process at all. I mean, we have an average of 10 percent for our municipal elections. … People have died for this.”

While it doesn't begin to address their historic debt, perhaps, Travis County is seeing a rise in voter participation along with other major state metros. In the first three days of early voting, counting in-person and mail-in votes, 37,007 county voters have turned out already. That's a slight climb over 2010.

“People are consuming [a lot of] information now, they want it on demand, and they want the me-now right-now so they can make a decision five minutes before they walk into the polls,” Santori said. “I want to be able to give as much of that as I possibly can to ensure they really don't have any blockages to getting to the polling places anymore.”

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