TurboVote: “Netflix” for Voter Registration

Kennedy School alumni launch an online voting program targeting college students.

President Faust looks on as freshmen sign up for TurboVote.
President Faust likened the program to “drive-in voting.”
A student registers with TurboVote.
Laptops and tablets provided students with on-the-spot instructions to sign up.
Freshmen registered as they dropped off their study cards in the University Hall faculty room.
Signs posted around University Hall reminded the Class of 2015 to register.

Busy with orientation, buying books, scheduling classes, picking extracurricular activities, and adjusting to a whole new life 3,000 miles away from home, registering to vote was the last thing on freshman Bonnie Lei’s mind after arriving at Harvard. But when Lei walked into University Hall to drop off her study card last week, all she had to do to register was grab a laptop or tablet with on-the-spot instructions and sign up.

Using a new voting program called TurboVote—which founder Seth Flaxman, M.P.P. ’11, describes as the “Netflix of voting”—Lei registered within minutes, and will soon receive a completed national voter-registration form by mail along with a pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelope to her local election authority. Once she’s mailed back the form, Lei will be registered to vote.

If she had wanted to vote by mail, Lei could request that TurboVote mail her a completed vote by mail application—she would sign the form and drop it in a mailbox and her local election authority would receive the application and send her a mail-in ballot. Whether she’s just registering or also voting by mail, TurboVote.org will send her reminders via e-mail and text. 

Would Lei have registered without the program?

“Maybe not,” she said. “It’s super convenient. I happened to be standing right here.”

The Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has been conducting voter registration on study-card day since 1999, offering students printed registration-request forms. But this is the first year they have worked with TurboVote, which both automates and speeds up the process by having students register through a single, well-organized online portal.

“The majority of Americans can vote by mail, but the process is terrible,” said Flaxman in a recent video interview with New York Public Radio’s Brian Lehrer. “You have to go to three different government websites: one to get a form, another to get an address, and then a third to figure out a deadline. And the deadline is usually three Thursdays before an election day that you don’t remember. We take out those steps.”

TurboVote—started earlier this year by Flaxman, Kathryn Peters, M.P.P. ’11, and Amanda Cassel Kraft, M.P.P. ’11—is specifically targeted at student voters who are besieged by distractions at the start of the academic year, which is also prime election season. “Sixty-six percent of students in 2010 said they didn’t vote because they were either busy, working, or had forgotten,” Flaxman told Lehrer.

“Even at Harvard, they don’t vote as much as the adults vote,” said Trey Grayson ’94, director of the Institute of Politics, at University Hall. But with the help of TurboVote, “These students will have the opportunity for their voices to be heard.” Grayson said the software makes registration about as easy as ordering movies on Netflix.

President Drew Faust, on hand at University Hall to watch students register, likened it to “drive-in voting.” “Put the opportunity to vote right next to something freshmen have to come in to do, so it reminds them of the opportunity,” she said. “Both the people I just spoke to are registering for the first time, so that’s very meaningful....I think a liberal-arts education is meant to educate people in a variety of ways, and I think one of those ways is the responsibility to vote.”

TurboVote’s creators launched a pilot program at Boston University during the mid-term elections last year, with 30 percent of the voters saying they probably would have not voted without the program, according to a survey they conducted. They hope to have the program running in 100 colleges by the 2012 presidential election. Those institutions that sign up for the service cover the cost of the initial mailings used by their students and also pay a small fixed sum that helps cover other, nonmailing costs. TurboVote has been working with the Voter Information Project and received funding from the Google Election Center and the Sunlight Foundation.

If successful, the program will increase voter turnout for every election, not just presidential ones, said Flaxman in an interview. When students registers through TurboVote, the program automatically begins tracking their hometown election calendars, sending them updates on everything from local school-board elections to primaries to presidential elections. “A lot of people remember to vote for president,” he pointed out, “but if you signed up for TurboVote, we would help you vote in all of those elections in between that are really easy to forget, and where democracy happens.”

Although Mason Hsieh ’15 had already registered in his home state of California, he decided last week to use TurboVote to switch his registration to Massachusetts, “so I can be more involved in politics while I’m in school,” he said. “I think it’s great that they have people here, it’s a great way to get college students active. I’m excited to be able to vote in Cambridge.”

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