Announcing Relational Voter Registration

Now everyone can be a voter registration hero.

April 30, 2020

We are ecstatic to announce a first-ever in voter registration. Now anyone, regardless of who they are, can get everyone they know registered to vote, simply by using the Blue Squad app.

Check out this video to learn how it works:

Yep, it’s really that simple. With just a few taps on your phone, you can make sure everyone you know and care about is registered to vote, and if they’re not, you can get them registered. In states that have online voter registration, we’ll help you send a text message directing them to the right website. In states that require a mail-in registration form, you can send them to a website that will generate that form for them, mail the form to them, and include everything (even a return envelope and stamp) they need to submit it to the Secretary of State. Once your friend gets registered to vote, we’ll notify you so you can feel like a democracy bad-ass. If they don’t get registered, we’ll remind you at a better time to ask again.

We’re calling this feature Relational Voter Registration, or RVR, and we think it has the potential to reshape the national electorate. Before we get into all that though, let’s talk about how it came to be.

Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including Voter Suppression

Blue Squad is based in Austin, TX. While Austin is a bastion of progressive government, Texas, as you may know, is not. While there are all sorts of conservative policies littered throughout Texas law, some of the most insidious are its rules and behavior on voting and voter registration. The state engages in all sorts of shenanigans to prevent people from voting, including:

These are just some of the more notable examples of how Texas works to actively decrease voter turnout. The combination of these various tactics has resulted in turnout that consistently ranks among the lowest throughout the country. We called these policies insidious because that’s exactly what they are — they have a massive impact on the shape of Texas government, allowing a small group of ideologues to retain their control on the state, and they would be largely unnoticeable save for the hard work of several watchdog groups.

It is in this environment that our team conceived of and created Relational Voter Registration. If we truly believed in making political engagement easier for everyone, we needed to start with voter registration.

How It Works

Before RVR existed, if you wanted to make sure everyone you knew could vote, you would need to know a lot about your friends, including:

  • First and last name
  • Street address, city, state, and zip code
  • Date of birth

...for everyone. You would also need access to a database of every registered voter in the country against which to check these details. Chances are, you don’t have either of these things.

To remove these barriers, the Blue Squad team did three things:

We secured a national voter file

Getting access to a national voter file is hard. Each individual state controls access to their voter rolls and they all respond differently to requests to acquire that data. Groups like ours that want to know about voters across the country typically work through a handful of vendors that have already done the work of compiling each state’s data. Those vendors (perhaps rightfully given the difficulty of acquiring the data) charge high annual fees, usually at $50,000/year or more.  Thankfully, our partners and clients had already done this work and were willing to give us access to their file in exchange for helping them fulfill their goals of increasing voter registration and turnout.

We built a robust search engine on top of the voter file

The files from counties and Secretaries of State have over 210 million records in them.  We wanted to make it possible for a person using a mobile phone to search through this entire database for a single friend.  This search had to perform under the following conditions:

  • The user may not know everything about a friend (e.g., current zip code) to provide an exact match.
  • The user might actually provide incorrect information (e.g., a nickname).
  • The user expects to see a match in less than 1 second.

Most databases would crumble under these conditions.  In fact, the software most Democratic campaigns use struggles to return results for much smaller geographies, even when given exact search criteria.  To make our search a seamless experience, we turned to a technology called Elasticsearch, which comes with two specific features that make it a great fit for searching over voter records.

First, it is really easy to “horizontally scale” an Elasticsearch database by splitting the data across multiple paralleled sections, or shards.  If you shard the data a certain way, you can enable a single search to happen across different sections of the data all at the same time, which means the search is significantly faster.

Second, instead of treating records as a series of rows and columns like most databases do, Elasticsearch uses a secondary technology called Lucene that organizes the data as a collection of documents.  Each document consists of keys (e.g., first_name) and values (e.g., Shion).  Lucene then does something really special: it creates a separate collection of records called an inverted index that stores all the possible variations of each value (e.g., “Shion”, “Shio”, “Shi”) and which documents contain those variations.  The magic of inverted indices means that a Blue Squad user can not only provide just the bare minimum information to run a search, but they can also be a bit imprecise when doing so.  Either way, the search engine will still return any relevant matches - and in just about 200 milliseconds.

We made it really easy for our users to search the voter file

With a voter file in place and a blazing search engine sitting on top of it, the last piece was making running searches really easy for Blue Squad users.  This was probably the simplest piece.  Any time you click on a contact in your app’s Network Tab, you can do the RVR mission for them.  The mission is just a simple form that asks you to put in whatever details you do know.  Once you submit the form, the app can do a few different things:

  • If there are 1 or more matches, it shows you the matches and asks you to confirm the correct person.
  • If there are too many matches (e.g., for common names), it asks for more information to narrow the results.
  • If there are no matches, you can either adjust the search or message your friend to check on their own.

On the last option, we provide suggested text for your message, with the relevant website for the friend to check their status.  If they live in a state that offers online registration, the link goes to their state’s website.  If they live in a state that doesn’t (e.g., Texas), the link goes to Register2Vote with all the info filled out already.  In either case, they just have to click a couple buttons to either get registered or receive a mail-in form with everything ready to go.

RVR Makes Everyone a Voter Registration Hero

Empowered with an easy way to check on their friends, every Blue Squad user becomes a voter registration superhero.  We’ve already heard some amazing stories from some of our users, with many people saying this is the first time they’ve ever felt something they did made a difference in terms of political change.

RVR has led to our users getting family registered for the first time ever and having substantive political conversations with friends without the typical melodrama.  We think these conversations are the seeds of something much, much bigger.

RVR will lead to new political conversations

As we saw reports of these conversations coming in from our users, we started to realize something.  Helping someone get registered is a uniquely powerful way to engage in deeper political conversations with them.  The reason for this is that voter registration occupies a rare place in everyone’s headspace - it’s a political thing that enjoys universal approval.  That means it can be used as an icebreaker with friends that are apolitical or as an olive branch with those that “sit on the other side”.  By showing someone you care about their ability to vote, you’re also showing them you care about them and their political identity.  That can mean a lot.

As more and more Blue Squad users use RVR to connect with the people in their lives, they will naturally start having more substantive conversations with those people.  These conversations will include how to get registered, who their local reps are, and even how they should vote.

How you can get started

Using RVR is simple - just download the Blue Squad app, complete the first few missions, including the Sync Contacts mission, and then use the Network Tab to go on RVR missions for everyone you know.  We think you’ll love it.  You’ll be helping your friends get registered and you’ll feel like a hero.

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