Youth group launches ballot website to empower new voters

Group works to cultivate lifetime voters by empowering young first time voters with the information they need to make informed voting decisions. Photo: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

WASHINGTON, DC, September 26, 2012  - A group of young people have been busy working to launch a new website that will empower voters.  

Last Monday, the League of Young Voters announced a new website, TheBallot.org, an interactive website that provides users a sample ballot and information on all the candidates that will appear on their respective ballot this November.

Four young people, all under age 27, set out to create a website that would give all people, but especially new first time voters and irregular voters, an easy online place to view what candidates and other initiatives  they could expect to see on their voting ballots this November.

The League, which was founded in 2003, aims to connect young people with issues that affect their lives and provide them with tools and training to help them harness opportunities to change their own lives.

“We wanted to create an interface with a group that spends much of their time on Facebook and Twitter and help them take this conversation to Facebook and Twitter,” said Sam Patton, systems director for the League.  “For 18 and 19 year olds out there who are just now engaging in politics, there is a lot of evidence that says if you can engage audiences when they are young through a local community of activists, they are much more likely to vote for life and become lifelong voters.”

The process of creating the website was laborious.  Working in conjunction with grassroots social change organization, The Bus Foundation, and with additional funding from the Youth Engagement Fund, the team spent their mornings in a small conference room at their Portland, Oregon offices to scribble down what they thought would be an easy-to-understand and navigable user interface.

They spent the rest of their afternoons on the streets doing their grassroots thing, getting non-college youth in low income and urban areas registered to vote.

Using TheBallot.org, voters can plug in their address and receive a sample ballot, information about candidates, and log in on their favorite social media site and allow friends on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+ know who they plan to vote for and why.

“We believe that when people engage in conversation together they find they have much more in common,” Patton said.

Another feature of the site created by voter registration site TurboVote cranks out a filled-out voter registration application for users to download and mail in.  

“The idea behind the concept is taking voting, something inherently social and collaborative, and bring it online as a resource for voters to utilize,” said Rob “Biko” Baker, the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters.

It was a long hard road to the launch. Patton said the process of creating the database made the team realize how disjointed and confusing the electoral process is in the U.S.  The team started with existing data already compiled by their friends at the online community organization groups New Organizing Institute. Team member Sarah Stern got to intimately know election commissions in 50 states when making 60 to 80 phone calls a day trying to assemble all the information needed to populate the site.

“The data isn’t even standardized,” Patton said he discovered. “In 2012, some of the electoral information is only on paper” making it hard to collect and manipulate in digital format. “People aren’t interested in data,” he said. “They’re interested in their own lives and voting on ballot initiatives that have impact on their own lives.”

And the recent voter suppression and voter fraud cases has made it an even more interesting year for the group, whose Texas affiliate helped advocate to the Department of Justice and was defendant intervenors in the case when the State of Texas sued the Department of Justice to attempt to implement Voter ID laws.

“We truly believe that regardless of the political party of the particular sponsor of these legislations, we just think simply that if you look at the facts, young people of color, low income communities and over all young people, students, infrequent voters are absolutely disenfranchised by these bills,” Patton said.

“There hasn’t been enough information put out to prepare people for these rules and many times what are touted as free voter IDs actually come with string attached like an $18 re-registration fee.”

He added that the recent timing of the laws will make it difficult for people new to the system to comply with additional hurdles.

“Compared to our peer country around the world America has a low turnout at the polls and we need to be encouraging people to participate by any means necessary,” Patton said.


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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