How Ushahidi Helped Thousands of Peoples' Votes Count in the 2012 USA Election

Nathaniel Manning
May 6, 2016

As people start to line up at polling booths across America for the primaries, and start to prepare to do so in November for the general election, it caused us to start thinking back to Ushahidi’s use in the 2012 election.

Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections around the world, from Nigeria and Mozambique, to yes, the USA too. (Side note, check out this published paper titled “Crowdsourcing Accountability in a Nigerian Election” in the Journal of Information Technology & Politics by Catie Snow Bailard & Steven Livingston proving that the use of Ushahidi – ReclaimNaija -- increased voter turnout in the 2011 Nigerian election by 8%). When you start to think about it running an election is an incredible logistical and legal feat. Hundreds of millions of people need to be able to go somewhere locally, cast their vote, and have them counted, all in less than 24 hours, and all in a trusted and transparent process. It’s herculean. And of course there are many vulnerable points for failure. Voting booths around the country often run out of ballots, sometimes voting machines are faulty, and sadly even sometimes there are bad actors who try and trick voters. One example we heard about was volunteers from one party telling older people waiting in line to vote that they needed a valid ID to vote in a state where this was not the law, trying to trick them into going home before they could cast their vote. Even in the country that is arguably the most vocal supporter of democracy in the world, these things happen.

In 2012 there were two Ushahidi deployments used to monitor the election. There was a third party election monitoring group, the Election Protection Committee, that ran Our Vote Live, and less well known to the public the Obama Campaign’s esteemed technical team -- The Atlantic referred to them as 'How a dream team of engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google built the software that drove Barack Obama's reelection' -- used Ushahidi in house to manage their volunteers and monitor voter suppression or voter issues on the day of the election. We have written about Our Vote Live in the past, so here we will tell you a little about the Obama Campaign’s use of our tool.

We had the chance to huddle with them again recently, as part of our current deep dive into user research, and were thoroughly impressed again by the impact of this deployment.

As we talked to some of the team that built the technology that powered the 2012 Obama Campaign, they started their story by telling how they walked in on day one and the technology looked like it was out of the 90s. As the story goes in 2008 the process for monitoring the election on the day of was a combination of pen and paper and a tech tool, but the tech tool went down in hour one, and so it was all pen and paper that year. The issue with pen and paper is that elections are highly timely events – you need to be able to count issues and reports of problems in real time enough to be able to bring the data to a judge to have legal action taken to keep the polling booths open longer. This is near impossible to do when your massive teams of volunteers are using pen and paper and phones calls across 50 states in a 14-hour period. But this is what Ushahidi was built to fix.

Their team surveyed all the options out there, and determined that Ushahidi was the best tool for the job, and even better it was open source. So they began to customize it for their needs. Their customizations were many, but three were particularly relevant for our user research as we design and improve Ushahidi V3. First, was the integration of a stats board, so they could see spikes of issues in a specific areas, and be able to send a lawyer there to investigate if need be. Second, was the ability to sort and structure the data by state and county and have it roll up. Third were team management and workflows, being able to send assignments to the army of volunteers witnessing the voting process around the country. For their deployment the only people able to report in were verified volunteers, so this was a contained private crowdsourcing deployment – something we have seen Ushahidi used a lot for in the last few years by other organizations such as the UN Department of Field Services, World Vision, or the Red Cross.

As we spoke, one particularly story of Ushahidi’s impact really hit home for us. Throughout the Election Day there were a number of instances where the reports spiked and clearly there was an issue. Sometimes this was due to a booth running out of ballots, others a voter machine glitch, and sometimes a legitimate case of voter suppression. They were able to get these reports in real time at HQ, and when they hit a level of severity, they dispatched an election lawyer to appeal to a judge. They were able to print out the verified reports from Ushahidi, and show them as first-hand, near real-time evidence that hundreds of people were being denied their ability to vote for one reason or another. Over the course of the day, they did this in four states, and in each case they won due to the real, timely data from their Ushahidi deployment. Each time the judge approved that the polls could stay open later to allow these people their right to vote. I will point out as well, that the result on these actions simply allowed the polls to stay open longer to allow anyone to vote, which is non-partisan.

We were told, “that day tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people across the USA were able to have their vote count and their voice heard due to the power and transparency of Ushahidi.” And that is why we do what we do.