COVID-19. Hurricanes. Violence. Chatbots get election info to voters through it all.

6 mins read
Image credit: Yogi Purnama and Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.

How do you get reliable election related information to voters coping with a pandemic, hurricanes, violence and voter suppression? Chatbots.

People forced to evacuate due to a hurricane in the middle of a pandemic still have their phones. That is the vital link to provide them the information they need with chatbots. Chatbots are programs that can respond to questions and provide information immediately. Think of SIRI or ALEXA, but custom designed to a specific need – such as providing election-related information on demand. Chatbots are widely used by businesses such as Uber and Yelp to manage customer inquiries, collect information and provide answers.

Reclaim Our Vote builds a chatbot-powered election helpline

Chatbots can be designed quickly and are very affordable to build. They can deal with thousands of queries per minute and provide answers in different languages. Reclaim Our Vote (ROV) is a campaign of the Center for Common Ground, a non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization. It empowers under-represented voters to fully participate in elections with innovative solutions such as this election chatbot designed by DemLabs. The ROV Election chatbot meets several challenges:

  • Provide information that is specific to a state
  • Provide answers in the voter’s preferred language
  • Cope with information that can quickly change
  • Collect and serve information from different official and public sources
  • Save details on the callers for later follow-up
  • Be affordable and deploy quickly
  • Capable of handling a large volume of queries at the same time
  • Provide information to people who don’t have a computer or internet access

Try it out. Text ‘VOTE’ to 202-301-3031

Chatbots provide voters with election related information by texts in their preferred language.

How do chatbots work?

Chatbots are small programs that listen to incoming text messages sent to the hotline. They ask the questions that you’ve configured such as the person’s state, language of choice and what information they need. It then looks up the information from a database and texts the answer back. The first document that this chatbot provides is what is an acceptable Voter ID in a state. This information comes from VoteRiders, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization providing free information and help to voters to make sure they have the right kind of ID to vote in their state.

The chatbot will shortly provide other voting-related information from other groups. The chatbot gets answers from a database of documents, which makes it easy to update the information being delivered. This is handy as some states are prone to changing voting rules at short notice.

How much does a chatbot cost? How hard is it to design one?

This chatbot is built on the Twilio technology platform and uses MySQL from Oracle to store the information. This combination makes the solution very affordable with simple chatbots starting at $500 and can be built in a day. Messages are sent as texts which cost about a cent each.

Chatbots are very cost-effective. For instance, the cost to respond to 1,000 inquiries would cost:
$1,000 + (1,000 inquiries x 4 cents) = $ 1,040
or about 10 cents to handle per inquiry and save the details for follow-up.

Each outgoing message counts as a text. The text messages about State, Language, Document requested and the answer sent add up to four texts. Chatbots also save details of each inquiry for follow-up later.

The Election Chatbot retrieves information from a database and texts the answer to the voter.

What information can a chatbot provide voters?

Voters and volunteers need a variety of information to vote and assist others to vote including:

  • How do I request an absentee ballot?
  • Have I been purged from the voter roll?
  • What is an acceptable form of Voter ID in my state?
  • Where is my polling location? Is there an early voting location?
  • How can I become a poll worker?
  • How do I report a voter suppression incident?
  • What is my state’s official election website?

The ROV Election chatbot will shortly provide other voting related information from other groups. The chatbot gets answers from a database of documents which makes it easy to update the information being delivered. This is handy as some states are prone to changing voting rules at short notice.

Take away: Don’t let man-made hurdles nor natural disasters prevent people from voting. Use chatbots to provide people the information they need to vote.

Send us your ideas of other voting-related information for chatbot should provide.


Image credit: Yogi Purnama and Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.

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DemLabs is a project of the Advocacy Fund

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Democracy Labs is a hub for ongoing technology and creative innovation that serves progressive campaigns and organizations at the national, state, and local levels.

Our focus is on long term, sustainable and affordable solutions. An approach that is longer than an election cycle, and isn’t purely dependant on volunteers, can enable more qualified candidates to run for office and for more issue groups to bring about positive social change.

Democracy Labs is a project of the Tides Advocacy Fund.

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