Oct 6 2014 - 10:00am

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Need an absentee ballot? There's an app for that

Sean Doogan
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An Alaska college student studying in Missouri is trying to get other young Alaskans to vote with a web-based app that allows them to sign up for an absentee ballot without having to use the mail or a fax machine.

It is easy to download and fill out a request for an absentee ballot in Alaska. But even though you can get the form online at the Division of Elections website, it still requires a voter to print out and then fax or mail the completed form to the Division of Elections headquarters. Fax machines are so 20th century, as today's youth might say -- and don't ask them about the last time they used the mail.

"I only found out how to address an envelope when I went to college because my grandmother doesn’t use email," said the app's creator, 2014 Juneau-Douglas High School grad Stephen Mell.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans ages 18 to 24 are the least likely to vote. Alaska teens and 20-somethings follow the national trend, according to the Alaska Division of Elections. Some are disengaged from the political process because of a lack of knowledge about the issues. Others may not care as much about political races as they do about the next iPhone update. Still more are just too darn busy to register and vote.

"In college it's very easy to forget that the rest of the world exists," Mell said. "I am focused on what I am doing on a day-to-day basis."

So Mell built vote-ak.us to make it easier for college students and other voters to sign up for absentee ballots. The app, like the state's website, takes all your voter information and then puts it into an official ballot request form. But unlike the state's website, Mell's app allows users to sign their name on the touchscreen on their computer or smartphone. 

It’s a lot easier than registering in person, said Ruby Steedle, a high school classmate of Mell's who used the app to register for the November 2014 Alaska general election while attending Brown University in Rhode Island.

"You can do it anytime on your phone, it's faster, and you don’t have to mail in the form," Steedle said.

But Mell is having a hard time getting the word out about his app (it's free to use). So far, including Steedle, he said only about 15 people have signed up for absentee ballots using the app. Mell is hoping media attention will get more Alaska students to register and request absentee ballots.

Absentee voting is becoming a very popular option for Alaskans, both at home and abroad. According to the Division of Elections, in the 2010 general election, 30,400 people signed up to vote absentee by mail -- about 12 percent of the 258,746 who cast ballots that year. So far this year, more than 20,000 people have already signed up to vote absentee, according to Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai.

Fenummiai said she expects that number to grow as the election nears.

"It’s a convenient way to vote for people," Fenumiai said. "They don’t have to leave their home. They can vote at their leisure, at home and not have to fight lines at the polling places or traffic."

Political parties have become adept at registering people to vote and encouraging them to use absentee ballots when they can't get to -- or don't want to go to -- the polls.

"The whole electoral process is pretty cumbersome and far behind the times from a tech standpoint," said Alaska Republican Party Treasurer Frank McQueary.

McQueary said that he hadn't yet heard of Mell's app, and thought it could be a good idea: If it was done securely, after all, the app would get a voter's personal data and potentially store it somewhere after the information has been sent on to the Division of Elections.

While so far, the state has processed and accepted all the absentee ballot requests from Mell's app, Fenumiai said the same thought had occurred to her, raising the question: How secure is it?

"That data is accumulated somewhere," Fenumiai said. "What happens to it? Where does it stay? How long does it stay there?"

Mell said his app only saves the data long enough to send it to the Division of Elections and claims none of the applicants' personal information, like Social Security numbers, is saved by his website.

Mell said that he would take his app down after the general election on Nov. 4. Mell said that much of the code was written specifically for this election and would not be able to process different future elections, like primaries. But Mell said that he would rework the app and eventually put it back on the web -- and he hopes its use will grow.

"One of the great things about websites is that they scale very well. They could be used by these 15 people and no more, or hundreds, or even thousands," he said.

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