The Technology of Elections

Q&A with Tiana Epps-Johnson

Tiana Epps-Johnson is a Democracy and Technology Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, a leading research center at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Epps-Johnson recently launched the Election Toolkit for local officials administering elections across the United States. The Toolkit, developed in part during Epps-Johnson’s tenure as a fellow at the Ash Center and with the financial support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will serve as an online clearinghouse of resources for the 2016 General Election and beyond.  The Toolkit will include website templates, data tools, civic icons, and other digital resources to allow local election officials to better distribute nonpartisan election information in their communities. 

Ash Center:  How did you become interested in working with local election officials?

Epps-Johnson: Local election officials are where the rubber meets the road in our electoral process. But there are so few resources focused on helping officials keep pace with technology and improve communication with voters. We founded the Center for Technology and Civic Life because we saw work with local officials as one of the greatest opportunities for modernizing our voting process.

Ash Center: What are the challenges that these officials, particularly, those from smaller jurisdictions with fewer resources face in engaging with their communities about upcoming elections?

Epps-Johnson: Local election officials are responsible for implementing election legislation, educating voters, designing materials, recruiting and training poll workers — our nation’s largest one-day workforce — and properly equipping polling locations for all sorts of contingencies.

The list of responsibilities is exhausting to write, let alone do. And in most counties in the U.S. there are only two to four people to do this critical work. With so few resources, both with staff and funding, it’s challenging for jurisdictions of all sizes, but especially smaller jurisdictions to adopt new tools and skills to meet the changing needs and expectations of today’s public.

Ash Center: Can you explain how your Election Toolkit seeks to meet these challenges?

Epps-Johnson: What a time to be alive! Today if I have a challenge I can Google hundreds of tech solutions to address it. And it is often overwhelming to comb through all of the options, make an informed decision, and implement a program — especially if you’re short on time and don’t feel confident using technology.

The Election Toolkit is helping election officials not only find free and low-cost tech resources that have been recommended by others in their field, the Toolkit also provides step-by-step instructions on how to use the tools. It’s a one-stop shop, and that’s really important when someone’s time and budget are constrained.

Ash Center: What feedback have you received thus far from practitioners you have partnered with?

Epps-Johnson: The resources that we build and curate are valuable to election officials. And what’s really at the heart of this work, what we’ve heard from so many in the field, is that they feel a huge benefit from the national network of practitioners that we’re creating together. Conversations, in-person and online, are opportunities for everyone to exchange ideas, ask questions, and ultimately advance the election administration profession.

Ash Center:  Are you noticing any trends in civic engagement technology?

Epps-Johnson: A trend that I hope soon becomes a regular practice in civic engagement technology is real prioritization of research and partnerships with people before tech. (Shout out to Laurenellen McCann and her thought leadership on the concept of build with, not for).

For us, the process of the building the Toolkit included first collecting ideas from election officials across the country, then hosting a workshop led by our amazing project partners Center for Civic Design where officials prioritized the tools they most needed, followed by a second workshop where election officials helped to design the Toolkit website, and finally doing months of usability testing before going live today.

We can genuinely say it’s a resource by and for election officials. And because of this legwork I am not only confident that we’re meeting the real needs of a community of practitioners, but also that the Toolkit that will be widely used to better engage voters across the country.

Ash Center: How did your Technology and Democracy Fellowship at the Ash Center help you in your work developing the Toolkit?

Epps-Johnson: Through the fellowship I was able to share ideas and learn from other practitioners who are doing work everyday to improve our democracy, but in different sectors. Near the end of the Fellowship I had the chance to give the other Fellows a sneak-peak of the Toolkit and get feedback. There were concrete recommendations from learnings in their own work especially for this phase of the project where we’re now focused on getting the Toolkit in the hands of as many election officials as possible.

Ash Center: What do you think are our biggest challenges to democracy in the U.S. today?

Epps-Johnson: There are many. One that we work to address at the Center is the strikingly low civic participation at the local level. Local officials make decisions everyday that directly affect our lives and at the same time we see a tremendous drop off of votes for local representatives compared to say, presidential candidates. We are working to solve for some of the information gaps that we see as one key piece of the puzzle for increased local participation.