Democracy Live shifts ballots from polling place to the digital age
February 8, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Most voters pick up a pamphlet from the mailbox or steer to a county or state elections website to study candidates and issues before Election Day.
The process of researching ballot issues and mailing a ballot is not so easy for residents living abroad and military members deployed overseas.
“You think about the soldier out there in Kandahar, you know, he’s fighting for our right to vote and our democracy and, ironically, he’s the one guy who can’t vote,” Democracy Live founder Bryan Finney said.
The endless chatter from cable TV pundits and countless jokes on late-night TV in the 36 days after the disputed 2000 presidential election inspired Finney to create a better process to elect leaders. The former U.S. Senate staffer had created a dot-com startup, so he melded the skills to launch Democracy Live.
The result is a technology firm dedicated to simplifying elections for military voters overseas and disabled voters in the United States. The technology the Issaquah company offers is light years distant from infamous butterfly ballots and indecipherable chads.
“Here it is, the late 20th century and we still can’t figure out how to count votes,” Finney said. “So, I got involved with modernizing the balloting systems and voting technologies that were out there to try to rid the world of hanging chads and butterfly ballots.”
The company’s signature product, LiveBallot, is not online voting. The tool allows voters to print, mail and track ballots.
Issaquah Chamber of Commerce leaders honored Democracy Live last month in the Innovation in Issaquah contest, a showcase for local businesses offering one-of-a-kind services.
“Washington is kind of ahead of the curve with mail-in balloting, but to move the entire voting and elections process to digital — especially in their case, where they’re doing stuff with people that are deployed overseas — it’s a niche that’s needed with the pace of technology,” chamber CEO Matt Bott said.
Finney said Issaquah is “the perfect spot to grow an innovative business” due to the natural setting and the proximity to major cities. The company has 15 employees in Issaquah, and elsewhere in the United States, to assist local elections agencies.
Democracy Live and Microsoft received a federal Department of Defense grant last year to offer e-ballot services to military members deployed overseas. The product is called LiveBallot.
Congress authorized dollars for the grant in the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. President Obama signed the MOVE legislation in October 2009.
“We want to help the soldiers fighting for our right to vote and fighting for our democracy to make sure that they can participate in that same democracy. We want to make sure that no voter is left behind, including those who may have disabilities,” Finney said.
LiveBallot can also be set up to answer questions about the candidates and measures on the ballot — a problem for voters left to cast ballots thousands of miles from home.
“The real common denominator that virtually all of the 200 million eligible voters in this country have is, ‘That’s great. I’ve got my ballot, but who are these guys?’” Finney said.
The multimedia tools embedded in the electronic ballot offer candidates and others to record video statements about the items.
“We felt that by creating a company that didn’t focus specifically on delivering a ballot, but delivering the candidate information in an intuitive and a 21st century balloting experience, where the ballot literally can come alive and the candidates on your ballot can pop off your ballot and speak directly to you about why they’re running and what they stand for and what they intend to do, was sort of the genesis of this new technology,” he continued.
Democracy Live rolled out LiveBallot in more than 250 elections nationwide in November.
Nearby Kitsap County deployed the technology during the 2010 mid-term elections. The county has a large military population attached to U.S. Navy facilities.
Kitsap County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore said the LiveBallot technology received positive feedback after the November election, though some voters had questions about the technology.
“If it works for military voters, it works for voters with disabilities, then you look at what would be the next step, and I think that is just a lot of voters being comfortable with the process,” she said.
How did the chamber choose local innovators?
Issaquah Chamber of Commerce leaders honored three Issaquah businesses and a nonprofit organization as trendsetters last month as part of the inaugural Innovation in Issaquah contest.
The honorees represented a cross-section of local businesses: election services provider Democracy Live, life-sciences imaging company Applied Precision, health care center Restorix Health and nonprofit Eastside Baby Corner, a resource for mothers and infants.
Shirey Contracting received honorable mention honors for the Zero Energy Idea House along Lake Sammamish.
“I think folks were excited to hear about some of the success stories that were going on right in their own backyard,” chamber CEO Matt Bott said.
The idea for the contest germinated last year.
“We sat back and looked at a lot of things,” Bott said. “We said, ‘We need to do more to help pull out the great success stories in our business community.’”
State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a possible gubernatorial candidate next year, addressed business leaders at the October kickoff for the contest. Then, a chamber committee ranked applicants based on accomplishments, potential, risk and reward.
The chamber highlighted 21 nominees — including restaurants, marketing firms and other nonprofit organizations — and announced the honorees at a Jan. 25 luncheon.
“We’ve been in the recession for a couple of years, and I think people are excited to celebrate small-town icons, like our businesses,” Bott said. “Truthfully, I think a lot of people were surprised and interested in the breadth of businesses that are here.”
Issaquah Innovators, Part 1 of 3 in a series highlighting Innovation in Issaquah honorees
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.