One week before Election Day, Alex Roy and Megan Harris ask how technology affects our voting system and whether artificial intelligence could help. Hear Vote America founder Debra Cleaver discuss the state of our democracy, what she’d do to create more opportunities to register, and whether it’s better to bring the people to the polls or the polls to the people. 

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence, with honest conversations about how technology will or won’t change our daily lives. I’m Alex Roy.

Megan Harris

And I’m Megan Harris.

Alex Roy

Megan, today, we’re going to talk about car culture and democracy, but really voting and autonomous vehicles. Why? Because there are so many people out there claiming that technology can solve everything. And one of the crazy ideas — well, maybe it’s not so crazy, we’ll find out — is that autonomous vehicles might have some role to play in voting and voting systems and the problems that we see in the media. 

Now, this show is about debunking myths. So we have, today, a real voting expert, someone very, very, very cool to talk about it. Megan, who is it?

Megan Harris

We’re joined today by Debra Cleaver. Debra’s been working at this intersection between technology and democracy since 2004. She founded VoteAmerica, Vote.org, ElectionDay.org. I think you could call her probably a serial founder in voter engagement organizations. 

Alex Roy

Debra, we’re so glad to have you. Welcome to the No Parking podcast.

Debra Cleaver

I’m so happy to be here.

Alex Roy

Can we just say, Ms. Cleaver, you have the best collection of domains. How in the world did you secure Vote.org?

Debra Cleaver

Well, I don’t have that one anymore. That’s a story for another podcast, but I did found it. I cold emailed the man who bought it in 1994 and said that I’d been active in the voter turnout space for a while, and I was interested in buying his domain. And if he was interested in parting with it, what would his price be? And the initial price that he sent me, I was like, “LOL, no, no, no. I mean, I need a real price.” And then he came back to me and he said, “Oh, I just Googled you, and you are not affiliated with a political party. You are just a person who does voter turnout work.” So we hopped on the phone and we, you know, became friends and over a period of six months we negotiated what a fair price would be.

Alex Roy

One dollar?

Debra Cleaver

Uh, no, no. It was about a $100K, which in retrospect is nothing. I think I’ve probably spent that on plaid shirts over the course of the past few decades. But I told him if he sold the domain to me, I would use it to permanently increase voter turnout in America.

Alex Roy

Well, I am so thrilled that you did. And that’s why we’re talking here today. Let’s get into it.

Megan Harris

So Debra, the U.S. election is obviously in progress. That’s hundreds of House seats, 35 Senate seats, several governorships, the U.S. presidency, and gobs of state and local races. Now, we’re dropping this episode one week from Election Day, that’s November 3rd, so by the time many of our listeners hear this, we might know the outcome of a few of those races, but for the big one, let’s be real, probably not. Today, we want to talk not about the candidates themselves or even party politics, we just want to talk about access.

Alex Roy

Yes. I was researching the history of the freedom of movement. And I read on the internet, which cannot always be trusted, that freedom of movement was considered so fundamental a human right, that the founding fathers included explicit language in the constitution guaranteeing freedom of movement. And that this was actually removed because it was considered so obvious, and now that is only implicit as part of the Interstate Commerce Clause. But I also learned that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. 

And that all connects back to the mission of self-driving, which is to improve access to mobility, but especially voting. Because in this country we have transit deserts where people can’t get around. You have food deserts where people don’t have access to healthy food. And clearly, is this even a term, polling deserts? There clearly is an issue in this country with people having access. So…

Megan Harris

Debra, you’re nodding.

Alex Roy

Debra, tell us how do most people in this country get registered to vote?

Debra Cleaver

The overwhelming majority of people get registered to vote at the DMV. So you go to the DMV to get your license, and that’s where you get registered to vote. I’m going to say it’s about 45% of voter registration comes through the DMV. And then after that, it’s online registration. And then a small percent, probably 5 or 6% of registration happens in the field. That means someone comes up to you with a clipboard and registers you to vote. But the majority of the tactics available for registering to vote, the DMV is the primary one.

Megan Harris

Well, it sounds like any opportunity to be registered as a good one, right? So what’s the issue for you with that connection to the DMV?

Debra Cleaver

So transportation in America has fundamentally changed over the past 40 years, and driver’s license attainment rates have dropped every year since 1983. And now the drop-off is accelerating because of things like Lyft and Uber, and then when you start to add autonomous vehicles, people will no longer need driver’s licenses. Which is fine, because it’s actually a poll tax when you think about it. Like you have to pay for a driver’s license, and people shouldn’t need driver’s licenses to register to vote. 

But I’ll tell you something nerdy. Not only do people register to vote at the DMV, but in order to register to vote online, you need a driver’s license, because the DMV has your signature on file. And in voting, and only voting in America, we pretend that your signature — your manual signature — is a unique identifier. So when you vote, completely untrained humans compare your signature A) on your security envelope, if you vote by mail, or B) on the log book if you vote in person to the signature on file at the DMV. 

So the reason that you can’t register to vote online without a driver’s license is that there’s no way for you to provide your signature. Which is nonsense, because there are so many other ways to prove your identity that have nothing to do with your signature.

Alex Roy

You bring up so many fascinating points, but foundational is that you probably have to physically get to a DMV, at some point in your life, at least once, just to kick off registration such that you can vote eventually. So, in principle, if people did not have access to DMVs, a ride, and it could be in an autonomous vehicle, would be helpful?

Debra Cleaver

Oh, absolutely.

Alex Roy

Okay. So, all right. That’s interesting.

Debra Cleaver

It’s funny to even think about that. Like first you need to get to the DMV.

Alex Roy

It’s a big hassle in some cities. It’s a really big hassle.

Debra Cleaver

I grew up in New York. I grew up without a car. My family didn’t have a car, and I know where the DMV is in relation to my mother’s house. I mean, it’s literally miles away. And that’s New York, where we have buses and subways, but like, it’s not very close to a bus or a subway. It’s, you know — New York has expensive real estate, so you put the DMV kind of out of the way, which makes it hard to get to, if you don’t have a car.

Megan Harris

Well, on the flip side, I grew up in a really small town, a rural area. The closest DMV was more than 45 minutes away and only open one day a week. So I happened to turn 16 the day it was open, so that worked out for me. But for a lot of people, you know, that big moment — if that’s the kind of family you live in — of getting your driver’s license on your 16th birthday, that’s a matter of chance.

Debra Cleaver

Yeah.

Megan Harris

So Debra, what are some common barriers to the act, then, of voting? What are some of the challenges that people face?

Debra Cleaver

So one that a lot of people don’t really think about, you have to get to the polls to cast the ballot if you vote in person. That’s assuming that you’ve managed to register to vote and that your state hasn’t purged you from the voter registration files, which they do without too much rhyme or reason. But you need to physically get to the polls to vote, and you need to get there when the polls are open. And the polls are open while you’re at work for most people. We are the only nation with democratically elected leadership that votes on a workday, so there’s an excellent chance that the polling hours directly overlap with when you’re at work or traveling to and from work. So I would say that’s actually a big one. It’s bigger than people realize. You have to get to the polls.

Megan Harris

Has the pandemic made any of this any more challenging, you know, this election year?

Debra Cleaver

Yes. So, and this is unrelated to driving, we’re seeing record numbers of people sign up to vote by mail, because people don’t feel as comfortable voting in person. There’s a lot of, I think, “chaos,” would be the word right now.

Alex Roy

Mail is delivered by truck, by human beings, sometimes via carts, or the humans on trucks. So is there an error rate? Or, vehicle crash or accident rate for mail trucks historically, which has had any bearing on this?

Debra Cleaver

So this is even… I’m going to give you an even stranger answer. I was reading this earlier this year. The USPS trucks themselves are very old, and most of them should have been taken out of service and they’re not out of service. So apparently it is a very regular occurrence for a USPS truck to catch fire, because the engine is too old. And I think nationally, it happens one truck per day. Which when you consider how many trucks there are, I guess that’s not a huge number, but when you take a step back — one mail truck every day catches fire, because the trucks themselves are so old and should have been removed from service a while ago. So I’ll say this, autonomous vehicles are certainly newer than the trucks that are catching fire…

Alex Roy

… and fundamentally, an autonomous vehicle that’s fleet operated will be maintained at a much higher level. So I’m amazed. Wow, that’s amazing!

Megan Harris

Taking a bird’s eye view at this, we don’t have one single national election. Some of the issues you’re talking about really differ between whether you’re in an urban environment, in a rural one, and of course, what state you’re in. Are there any states, from where you sit, that you think are doing it in a… better way?

Alex Roy

Optimally?

Megan Harris

Yeah?

Debra Cleaver

There are five states right now where all elections are held by mail, meaning that every registered voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail with a prepaid return envelope, or they can put it in dropboxes. And that’s places like Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii. But for people who just feel more comfortable voting in person, they also have polling centers instead of polling places. So you can go to one in the state. It’s not like a specific one. No one has to spend the time to map you to your designated polling place. You can bring your ballot with you and you can fill it out there.

Megan Harris

If you like the idea of going to a library a little bit better than going to a fire hall versus going to an elementary school, you have your pick?

Debra Cleaver

Exactly. Or, you know, a lot of people work pretty far from home. I mean, Americans right now commute further to go to work than in any time in our history. So if you work two hours away from your house, you should just be able to vote at the polling center by your office or your place of employment. So I think those are better systems. They reduce the cost of administering the elections, because you don’t have to pay poll workers. You don’t have to have like thousands of polling places open. And they increase turnout, because having your ballot in your house is a really good reminder that you have to vote. And it shows up about a month before it’s due, so for a lot of people, it like sits on your kitchen table as a reminder that you have to vote. And also because it’s in your house, you have time to research what’s on the ballot. So people who live in states that have moved to vote-by-mail really strongly prefer it for convenience. 

And I don’t know how complicated your ballots are in Pennsylvania, but in California, sometimes they’re like eight pages long because we have a proposition system. So all sorts of crazy things end up on the ballot.

Megan Harris

This year, just one page. Yeah. But it’s been a little longer in years past.

Alex Roy

I did notice that the envelope… I’m meant to lick and seal the envelope. But after licking and trying to seal it, it didn’t stay sealed. And I was going to glue it. And it was like a Seinfeld episode. I’m like, “Ah, the glue! It looks like I messed up the envelope.”

Megan Harris

Yeah. Our local NPR station actually did an explainer about that because there’s a whole rule about naked ballots in Pennsylvania. You have to be very particular about how you seal them. So if the adhesive doesn’t work, you can’t put tape on it — that’s against the rules. So yeah, you’re not alone, Alex.

Alex Roy

We’re going to have to go through this, OK?

Debra Cleaver

When you try to explain our elections to people in other countries, they just think you’re kidding. Naked ballot, who comes up with this?

Alex Roy

Well let’s talk about those countries. What countries have a model for voting that you admire? Where does it work well?

Debra Cleaver

One that comes to mind is Australia. It’s compulsory. Filing your taxes is compulsory. Voting is compulsory. So, you know, it makes elections more competitive in some way, because everyone’s going to vote. Also, something that Australia does that pretty much every other country does, you can only campaign for so many months. It’s very restricted. You know, you can campaign for six months, and then you have the election. None of this campaigning, apparently indefinitely, that we have.

And then I believe Australia is one of the countries where all elections are publicly financed, so you can’t pour billions of dollars into elections. So it’s a lot saner of a process, and a lot more people participate. And you know, if you don’t participate, you’re fined, but it’s not punitive. It’s prohibitive. It’s just enough money to scold you and remind you, you have to vote.

Alex Roy

So in other countries, is the DMV linked to voting? Do you have to vote at a DMV?

Debra Cleaver

So the reason why the DMV is currently the bedrock of American democracy is actually kind of funny. Decades ago, in the 1990s, citizens started to say, like, “Hey, registering to vote should not be hard. Any time you interact with any government agency, you should automatically be registered to vote unless you specifically opt out.” And they chose the DMV as the first government agency to roll this out in, because people get their licenses when they turn 16 or when they turn 18. And it just made so much sense, so many people had their driver’s licenses, and they were like, “The DMV will be the very first of many government agencies.” Now we’re almost at 40 years later? No 30, and we haven’t added any other government agencies. So the DMV was supposed to be first. And that’s where we stopped. And at the same time, people aren’t getting driver’s licenses at the same rate. But the idea was that any time you interacted with the government, you would be registered to vote if you weren’t already. So, you file your taxes, you get social security. I mean, anything like that.

And while the Motor Voter Act is one of the great achievements of election rights, it’s also older than the internet. That is the last time that we have upgraded our voting systems. But yeah, the DMV was never intended to be the bedrock of American democracy. And it is. The first time I said that, I was kind of kidding and was with a bunch of election nerds and we all laughed. And then I stopped and I was like, “Is there another agency that we could say is the bedrock of democracy?” And everyone got very quiet.

Alex Roy

Suppose an autonomous vehicle company — a private company — wanted to do good. The way I see it, there’s potentially two ways an autonomous vehicle could help people vote. One is they could deliver the people safely to a polling place. Or autonomous vehicles could bring a polling place to the people. Maybe move ballot boxes around? Do either of these make any sense??

Debra Cleaver

When you look at households that have a car versus households that don’t, (yes). In the 2018 primary, if you look at households where no one has a car, 36% of the people voted. And if you look at households with cars, 66% of the people voted. It’s almost doubled. People aren’t voting, because they can’t get to the polls.

Megan Harris

Well, so what about column B, then? Ballot drop off, or some kind of roving secure ballot box? I mean, we’re being purely aspirational here, but can you imagine any reality in which that works?

Debra Cleaver

I mean, I would say let’s go bigger. Apparently the USPS needs new trucks, so why stop at voting? I feel like autonomous vehicles are not catching fire because they’re too old. So yeah. I mean, if the ballots aren’t being delivered in time, it’s because the post office needs a new fleet. So it seems like you could solve some mail delivery problems. But rides to the polls would significantly increase turnout, too. There’s no one who would argue with that.

Megan Harris

So if old gear is the problem, and you’re imagining an opportunity to upgrade some of this infrastructure, where should it begin? Urban areas, rural, suburban? Where is the greatest need right now?

Debra Cleaver

It’s actually rural America that’s hurting the most right now, in all ways, like all sorts of infrastructure ways. We just launched a project to pay for rides to the polls specifically in Navajo Nation, which spans three different states because the Navajo do not have vehicles to get to their polling places, which are on average 50 miles away from their homes or they have vehicles and they don’t have gas money. So right now, I think our program is taking the form of us just paying for gas cards.

Alex Roy

You said 15 miles? Or 50?

Debra Cleaver

5-0. 50 (miles).

Alex Roy

Wow.

Debra Cleaver

I think that there is a really serious need for transportation in this country in rural areas. You were talking earlier about food deserts, voting deserts. These are infrastructure deserts. There’s nothing.

Megan Harris

Debra, you mentioned voting reminders. I know that’s been a big part of what VoteAmerica does. You were actually behind a lot of the text-based voter campaigns, so I have you to thank for those four or five messages I’m getting every day from multiple states.

Debra Cleaver

Not just behind. I mean, this is 100% my fault. I was the only person doing this in 2016.

Megan Harris

Do you know if it’s working?

Debra Cleaver

Oh yeah. Gosh, I’ve produced over 200 pages of academic research in partnership with the professors that we work with. So it turns out you can buy cell phone numbers and then you can pay humans to send text messages, one at a time, on this software platform that these people I know built and it’s legal because it’s not programmatic messages. Like there’s nothing stopping me, Debra Cleaver, from texting someone I don’t know. And they built this software, did it at scale. And obviously they saw this as a marketing channel for corporate America. And I was like, “Hey, do you guys mind if I use this platform to do some voter registration?” And they’re like, “Oh cool. We hadn’t thought about that.” So I got Silicon Valley to give me some money, because no one in DC would fund this. And then I was like, “Oh, that worked really well for the voter reg. We should use it for election reminders, get out the vote initiatives.” And we did. We sent a few million. Now everyone does it. My team sends 3 million a day. We have hundreds of people who get paid to send these messages. 

So yeah, this is definitely on me. But since I’ve studied it so much, I can tell you it works really well when you are providing value to another person. Like when we send reminders, we say, “Hey, if you still live at this address, your polling place is located here.” We never asked you for anything. It works less well when you are a politician I’ve never heard of, and you send me a message asking me for money.

Megan Harris

Right.

Debra Cleaver

But it does work very well for helping people vote by clearing information. Biggest roadblocks: They don’t know when to go. They don’t know where to go. They don’t know what to bring. That’s what we use it for. 

Megan Harris

I guess that speaks to the value of advertising?

Debra Cleaver

Yes, we’ve sent 75 million messages so far this year. So in October, 2016, someone did a study. They asked citizens if they knew when election day was. IT WAS OCTOBER OF 2016, and 37% of Americans could not tell you when the election was, including 22% of college voters. And part of the reason our outdoor advertising, our transit advertising, worked so well, is it tells you the date of the election. I’m not making that up. Literally just “Election Day is November 3rd, 2020” is one of the reasons that our advertising works so well.

Alex Roy

So it sounds like an autonomous vehicle, an autonomous vehicle company, a fleet, could offer, on the outside of the vehicles, obviously advertising is one option, but it could also donate that ad space if there were screens to encourage voting. And that would be non-partisan.

Debra Cleaver

And it would work so well.

Megan Harris

So again, (we’re) one week out from Election Day, do you have any parting words for U.S. voters out there?

Debra Cleaver

We’re going to have record high turnout this year. American citizens are going to choose the next President, and we’re going to choose the next President by voting. It’s not going to be Congress and it’s not going to be the courts. And everything is going to be OK as long as people vote. Everything, by the way, is always OK as long as people vote. The reason things aren’t OK is people aren’t voting. It’s a simple message, but everything’s OK as long as you vote.

Alex Roy

That makes me so optimistic, because I feel like, you know, I feel most patriotic on election days. I’ve got a lot more questions and this has been great, but we’ve got to wrap this up because I often talk too much and I could spend three hours with you. I know Megan feels the same way. 

Debra Cleaver is the founder of VoteAmerica. Thanks again for giving us your time.

Debra Cleaver

Thank you. This was so much fun.

Megan Harris

Alex, we did it!

Alex Roy

We totally did it!

That’s it from us. If you enjoyed this episode and want to engage with us some more, follow us on Twitter at @NoParkingPod. Of course, I’m everywhere @AlexRoy144. Megan Harris is our producer.

Please share the No Parking podcast with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us a good review wherever you find your favorite podcasts. This show is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. 

Until next time, I’m Alex Roy. This is the No Parking podcast.