Chat Your Way to Voter Registration


You make and break dates by text, order fast food, craft spirits, and nearly anything else you can think of by text—now you can register to vote by text, too.

As part of a get-out-the-vote campaign, the Fight for the Future Education Fund built a chatbot called HelloVote that can register Americans to vote via SMS or Facebook messenger, both firsts in digital voter registration efforts. The potential audience is huge: conservative estimates put the number of unregistered voters in the U.S. at 52 million, or approximately a quarter of eligible voters.

Holmes Wilson, a co-founder of Fight for the Future, says HelloVote is the fastest and easiest way to register to vote there is. The platform already works with online registration systems in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Vermont, with more on the way. In those states, registration is completed after just a few minutes of texting or messaging on the Facebook app. (It also works on Facebook for desktop, but according to Wilson, the mobile experience is better.)

“It takes it to a whole other level of simplicity and we expect that in the places where they offer that [online voter registration], we’re going to get totally off the charts conversion rates,” Wilson told Civicist during a phone call last week.

In states that do not offer online voter registration or are not yet supported by the platform, HelloVote will email a completed registration application for users to print out, sign, and mail in, including a stamp with the printable, foldable envelopes. If a user doesn’t have a printer, HelloVote offers to send a completed form by mail, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Built on the communications platform Twilio (a partner on the project), HelloVote is as easy and fast as Wilson claims—I tried it out last week—and the website is a refreshing purple scheme instead of red-white-and-blue.

With HelloVote, the Fight for the Future Education Fund (the 501c3 version of sister organization Fight for the Future, a 501c4) joins a number of other organizations building technical solutions for voter registration, including TurboVote, Rock the Vote, Vote.org, and the new nonprofit cofounded by Y Combinator president Sam Altman, VotePlz.

There is evidence that these efforts can lead to real impact: Seth Flaxman, the co-founder and executive director of Democracy Works, tells Civicist that 75.14 percent of the new voters that TurboVote helped register in 2012 successfully voted that November. TurboVote also sends out reminders about elections and polling places, in addition to registering new voters.

Although one voter registration solution can look much like another, Holmes Wilson does not think Fight for the Future’s work in the space is redundant, especially because HelloVote isn’t just another web form.

“When you have such a massive number of people who are eligible who don’t vote—and then in midterm elections and local elections, that number is even lower—I think five projects working on using technology and organizing to try to address this problem…it doesn’t feel like a crowded space,” Wilson told Civicist. “I think there should be more people working on this.”

“There’s always a question of well, should the existing players be bigger and have more funding, or should we have more players, and I think the answer is both,” he added.

Wilson told Civicist that the major players mentioned above are all in communication with each other and looking for ways to collaborate. He explained that the reason the Fight for the Future Education Fund struck out to do their own independent project was partly technological—none of the other organizations had the open API they needed

It was also just easier to do it themselves.

“Between trying to convince an existing organization to drop everything to work on your idea that might be risky and just sitting down and doing it yourself,” Wilson said, “it’s often a lot more practical and reasonable just to go and pursue that vision yourself and take that risk on, then to try to persuade others in the space to do it.”

Ari Berman, a journalist and the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, told Civicist that the new services are a good thing, but technological solutions have their limits.

“I’m all for bringing our antiquated registration system into the 21st century,” Berman wrote in an email. “The problem is that the best technology can only be so effective when bad laws are in place and unfortunately too many states are making it difficult to register voters.”

At least 19 states still do not offer online voter registration, which Berman says is the “very minimum every state should have.”

“Cool apps are great but policies like automatic registration would be a lot more effective in registering many new voters,” he added.