Harvard students launched a tool Friday for Georgia residents to monitor their voter registration statuses ahead of next month’s contentious Senate runoff elections in the state.
The monitoring service, VoteFlare, was the upshot of a student project in the spring 2020 course Gov 1430: “Tech Science to Save the World” taught by Government professor Latanya A. Sweeney, who also serves as the founding director of the Data Privacy Lab through Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.
The service monitors a Georgia state website for the latest changes made to voters’ registration statuses. Voters can sign up to receive text messages, emails, or phone calls regarding updates to their voter status. VoteFlare also informs absentee voters when the state mails them their ballot and when election officials receive their ballot once cast.
“These provide a lot of comfort for voters who maybe have lost confidence in systems like [the U.S. Postal Service],” said Sumhith V. Aradhyula ’21, a student who helped launch VoteFlare.
VoteFlare saw between 50 and 100 people register with the service within the first hour of its launch, according to Sweeney.
The tool is not the first time Gov 1430 has made an impact outside of the classroom.
In 2016, Sweeney and several of her students brought attention to voter registration websites for 35 states and the District of Columbia that were vulnerable to voter identity theft. In June 2016, Sweeney cited their research while testifying on election security before Congress.
Sweeney said her class’s previous research on election security informed the creation of VoteFlare.
“Those vulnerabilities are still there,” she said. “The big question as we hit 2020 was, ‘What do we do about it?’”
During the spring semester, Sweeney’s students brainstormed how they could use technology to address voter anxiety surrounding election security.
Though students intended to implement VoteFlare in 48 states and the District of Columbia in advance of the November elections, the coronavirus pandemic upended their work. Still, they were able to pull together the project in time for the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will determine which political party secures control of the Senate.
The website's release comes after a recent lawsuit filed in federal court called on Georgia to restore roughly 200,000 names to the state’s voter registration list that were allegedly purged from voter rolls. A federal judge rejected the claims in a Dec. 16 ruling.
Students designed the tool to be user-friendly and require minimal information from participants.
“They can come back to the site and see what’s gone wrong or what the issue is, and they have time to correct it so that their vote can still move forward,” Sweeney said.
Dhruv Gupta ’20, who helped launch VoteFlare, said the tool has attracted individuals from the youngest and oldest voter demographics.
“Younger folks are often a little bit more tech savvy but are less likely to vote, and older folks are less tech savvy but more likely to vote,” he said. “So it makes sense that these are the two demographics that are leaning towards tools like VoteFlare.”
Though the site keeps voters abreast of their registration status, it does not redress incorrect registration information.
“Ultimately we’re not changing your registration in any way,” said Jinyan Zang ’13, a Ph.D. candidate in Government and Gov 1430 teaching assistant who also worked with Sweeney on the 2016 voter identity theft report. “For the user, this is a tool for them to know what’s going on and how to contact their state board of elections or local board of elections to correct any mistakes.”
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alex_wilson2023.