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States turn to Web 2.0 tools for upcoming elections

Officials in California and Ohio are increasingly using online tools to manage elections, including services like Twitter.

WASHINGTON--State governments are turning to tools like Twitter to manage elections in order to cut costs and keep up with increasingly Net-savvy citizens.

Both California and Ohio are using more Web tools to communicate with citizens and their own staff during elections, the states' respective secretaries of state said Monday.

Through projects such as the Voting Information Project, states have been moving voter information online, such as voter registration instructions, polling locations, and descriptions of issues and candidates on the ballot. Millions of citizens also turn to state-run sites to track election results.

Now, the state of California is planning to utilize cloud computing for its election night services with the aim of saving money by storing data with external hosting providers, said California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen on Monday discussed the use of Web 2.0 tools to manage elections. Stephanie Condon/CNET

Maintaining reliable servers "to have a giant party two or three times a year that lasts four or five hours," is not the best use of the states' resources, Bowen said at the Politics Online Conference here, hosted by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University and by Campaigns & Elections' Politics Magazine.

That state also intends to use the micro-blogging site Twitter as a means to communicate with its poll workers. Bowen's office currently lacks an effective way to give a quick, direct message to the state's nearly 24,000 precincts, she said.

Such a platform could have been useful during the 2008 presidential primaries, Bowen said, when there was confusion over whether some citizens were eligible to participate in the primaries.

"All it takes is one of our five or six polling workers to have a BlackBerry," she said. "That information (about primary voting eligibility) would have been more than 140 characters, but we could have directed people to a URL with a simple text explanation."

Bowen said she manages her own Twitter and Facebook accounts but redirects complicated questions she receives through constituent services to ensure citizens get complete answers.

"Neither Facebook or Twitter are good for having a complex discussion," she said.

Facebook has proven useful, however, for upholding election laws. Bowen received a Facebook message last year regarding someone misrepresenting the contents of a petition for which they were gathering signatures. The secretary of state's investigators discovered they had an outstanding warrant for the arrest of the individual in question on a previous violation of California elections code on signature gathering.

Ohio has started using online courses to train poll workers-- part of the state's efforts to attract poll workers below the current average age of the volunteers, which is 72.

"It's been a constant struggle," said Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said.

Brunner previously suggested recruiting poll workers in the same manner the state recruits jurors.

"That's not sounding so outlandish now with the trouble we've had keeping people engaged, especially some of the older people who may not be familiar with the technology," she said.

The state also makes widgets available for third-party sites to embed with online voter registration tools.

"We look at 2.0 solutions as a way to increase access to democracy," Brunner said. "There are so many ways to reach voters, and there's no one silver bullet."

It's unlikely, however, that voters will be able to vote online anytime soon, the officials said, given the privacy concerns that would arise. Moreover, creating an online voting system would be "phenomenally expensive," Bowen said, given how complicated it would be.

"We have to know exactly who are you are up to the minute you cast your vote, but we cannot know anything about how you cast your ballot," she said. "We use these voting systems twice every other year, and ... we already have a relatively inexpensive means of voting."

In contrast, there are no privacy concerns associated with using cloud computing to host election night data, Bowen said.

"With election night results, there's nothing that's private," she said. "The question is what is the most efficient, cost-effective way to provide that service."