SMS for Democracy: Cost of Freedom Voter ID App

 The Cost of Freedom Voter ID app powered by Twilio seeks to jump start the application process for voters who need to get a voter ID. Launched on April 4, the SMS-based app provides information for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy. At the Hackathon for Social Good held during WebVisions NYC, I met Faye Anderson, Chief Evangelist for the Cost of Freedom Project, a citizen-led initiative that is developing location-based apps to provide voters with information on how to obtain a suitable voter ID.

Faye shared her concern that voters across the country are confused about whether they need to show a photo ID at the polls. Faye was also particularly troubled at the idea of voters who may not be so tech savvy who don’t necessarily know where to find resources pointing them to information on voting requirements and navigating an application process that’s disenfranchising by design. Many people give up out of sheer frustration.
Together we set out to use the Twilio API to develop an app that could easily deliver information, via SMS, to anyone looking to find information on voting requirements and Voter ID. Citizens in states requiring voter ID, such as Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin, can text the words “Voter ID” to receive information about their state’s photo ID requirements. There is a separate number for each of these 6 states.

For all other states, voters can send their state abbreviation to 202-609-7909. So, for example, callers who send “CA” will receive this message: “No photo ID required. To check your voter registration and polling place location, visit http://1.usa.gov/CAVoter or call 1-866-OUR-VOTE.”

Another unique aspect of this app was the use of a Google Docs as a live, online data store. The app was designed to allow anyone with write access to a Google Spreadsheet containing a list of states and appropriate SMS messages to be able to update the information that is sent in the response at any time, without having to be a hacker. This is really valuable, since Faye herself is not a programmer. It also allows Faye to choose a designated person in each state to keep on top of voting rights laws and update the spreadsheet accordingly.

This was accomplished using the Google Spreadsheets API which gives us access to any publicly published spreadsheet. The app, written in PHP, retrieves the spreadsheet using cURL and parses it into an XML document. We can then traverse the elements of the document’s structure and have the app pick out the appropriate cell within the spreadsheet corresponding to whichever state the person is looking for information on.

It was a really fun project to work on for a good cause as well. The Cost of Freedom text-based app shows how effectively civic focused apps can deliver quality information to those looking for it. It’s also just another way Twilio is helping lend a hand to democracy, one voter at a time!

For information about the Cost of Freedom Project, please visit Facebook.com/CostofFreedom.

For the gist see below: