Stuffing the Ballot Box—With Complaints

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In what many deemed one of the most important votes of our time,  the 2008 election inspired millions of Americans to cast ballots-between 126.5 million and 128.5 million Americans, in fact, or approximately 60 percent of all eligible voters, according to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

That said, the high amount of participation was a blessing and a curse-and even an opportunity to deliver some customer service. "There's a lot of awareness around voter protection and fraud," says Ben Madgett, an analyst in the public sector and vertical markets technology arm of analyst firm Datamonitor. "Getting the basic information out there...
has become more of an issue since Florida in 2000. The election is about being accountable and instantaneous.... You don't get a second shot to vote, right?"

That's where InfoVoter comes in. The Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based provider of election technology delivered two services during this past voting cycle: a forum for voters to call in and complain about any problems occurring at their polling locations, and a repository of voter information for those who needed it.

Working with cable network CNN, InfoVoter opened a special phone system on October 15, right after the final presidential debate between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. "Our goal in setting up the [hotline] was to establish a simple and reliable destination for voters to report information about problems at the polls," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director, in a statement.

On Election Day alone, more than 130,000 callers utilized the CNN InfoVoter hotline, according to Ken Smuckler, president of InfoVoter. When callers dialed 1-877-GO-CNN08, he says, several options opened up for them. First, callers could look for polling locations nearest to them by entering a residential phone number using the touchtone capability.

The entered number was run against a target database to generate a ZIP Code, which was then used to determine the best polling locations according to a proprietary InfoVoter database. The site's location was shared with the caller through a text-to-speech engine, and the caller was then automatically transferred to the local board of elections. "We track whether [the agency] actually answers the call and we give the caller a direct-dial number if it doesn't," Smuckler says.

The second option gave callers a 60-second window to record a complaint—regarding long lines, faulty machines, or any other voting-related hitch—before they, too, were transferred to the local board of elections, according to Smuckler. From there, the information, contained in a .wav file, went to CNN. Network producers and reporters examined patterns and major complaints to determine whether to pursue more-extensive reports.

"[The network] was looking to fill several hours of airtime with some form of news before the polls closed," explains Paul Logan, chief executive officer of Reston, Va.-based interactive voice response (IVR) provider Contact Solutions, which powered CNN InfoVoter's IVR. "CNN business correspondent Ali Veshi turned to me at one point and told me 70 [percent] to 80 percent of their news was coming from the hotline."

Logan says his company's biggest concern was making sure the platform could handle the expected call spikes. InfoVoter's Smuckler recalls that the night the hotline officially opened in October, 1,700 simultaneous calls were handled without a crash. "These applications put unique stress on an infrastructure, and it's very hard to replicate in advance of the actual day," Logan says. Even so, the initial success provided confidence for Election Day, when the line's 130,000 calls included spikes of up to 3,000 calls within a five-to-10-minute period-and still no hiccups.

All parties involved consider this year's hotline a success, not least because, as Smuckler says, it allows regular people to become citizen journalists by reporting the happenings in their local polling locations.
Datamonitor's Madgett believes the hotline's success can have greater implications for government CRM initiatives. "There's a shift in thinking about the way these agencies are approaching the citizen, improving service, and making government accessible 24/7," he says. "It'll be interesting to see how this develops."

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