Just in Time for the Midterms, BeVote Is UT’s Nonpartisan Voting Mobile App

As early voting turnout is breaking records across the state, the attention shifts to the youngest eligible demographic: 18-29-year-olds, in recent history the least likely population segment to cast a ballot. Just 46.1 percent of that cohort voted in the 2016 presidential election. At UT, students voted at a rate of just 18 percent in 2014, down from 42 percent in 2012.

This spring, sensing the importance of the highly divisive impending midterm elections, English Professor Hannah Wojciehowski, Associate Professor of Game Development Paul Toprac, and Strass Institute Director Susan Nold decided to find a way to engage students to vote. The trio signed up students in Natural Sciences, the School of Information, Fine Arts, and others to design and program a mobile app to enhance the voting experience for UT students. The result is BeVote, a free, nonpartisan tool that helps users register, find polling places, and otherwise stay informed of current and future elections.

Robert McInvale, a computer science and mathematics senior, built the iOS version, released on Oct. 18. Having previously served in the military in a governmental capacity, McInvale says that he learned that “Having the right people in power can make an enormous difference. I became a little more civically minded after my time in the military. It’s been a passion of mine since.”

School of Information graduate student Mona Mishra and Kathy Vong from the College of Fine Arts designed the app, which includes features like a polling location map, wait times at centers like the Flawn Academic Center and Perry-Castañeda Library, a checklist that includes sample ballots and a list of acceptable identification to vote, notifications about upcoming elections, and a tool to check your voter registration. Perhaps most crucially, though, BeVote provides a voters guide with information about every candidate on the ballot.

The faculty stressed the importance of making the guide nonpartisan, McInvale says. “It’s good. This is not pushing a particular agenda apart from the agenda of getting people out to vote.”

Morgan Lawless, a computer science and Plan II senior, took Wojceihowski’s world literature class his freshman year. Last spring, Wojceihowski reached out to Lawless to see if he was interested in working on the Android version of BeVote. Civically minded himself, Lawless had coincidentally sketched out—but never built—a similar idea for an app the semester before, but felt he’d never have the time to work on it. Now was his chance. The Andoid version will be released on Nov. 2.

“I’m an out-of-state student from New York. When I went to vote freshman year, I waited in line without a Texas drivers license and they didn’t accept mine. I had no idea,” he says. “I had to go back to my dorm, sign my passport, and go back. I could imagine another student not being able to do that, and not going back to vote.”

The idea, Lawless says, is to break down the barriers, small as they may be, because while students care about politics and want to be engaged, student life sometimes gets in the way. He says one feature he’s especially excited about is the notifications.

“Once someone has the app installed, it gives reminders when elections are coming up and when to be registered by. Let’s say people get really excited by the midterms. They might download the app for that, but when a local election comes up, they’ll get a notification. It could be runoff to a local elections, which gets less publicity.”

The notifications, plus some social media functions to help users engage their fellow students, are what is going to make BeVote useful beyond these highly publicized midterm elections. Per a spokesperson for the Moody College, the app has been downloaded about 1,000 times. While the developers do not know—for a few obvious reasons—which users are actually voting after using the app, McInvale and Lawless are hopeful that BeVote is useful for students, and that it provides some extra motivation to perform their civic duty.

“We collected some data and it told us that a lot of students are registered to vote, but they don’t actually do it,” McInvale says. According to the Moody College’s student-led TX Votes organization, student registration was 67.3 percent in 2014, when just 18 percent of students voted. “Students recognize that voting is important. I think the only thing standing between students and voting is the little push that gets them to go and do it.”

The iOS version of BeVote is available now through the Apple App Store, and the Android version is scheduled for release on Friday, Nov. 2.

Photo via Flickr

 
 
 

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