Four SE Michigan Universities Launch TurboVote

TurboVote, a voter-assistance startup that was launched last fall while its founders were attending Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, announced yesterday that it has partnered with four Michigan universities to make voting easier for Detroiters. Just in time for the presidential election, Wayne State University in Detroit, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Marygrove College in Detroit, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti have all signed on to launch the voting service to their students.

Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of TurboVote, says the goal is to make registering to vote and voting by mail as easy as renting a movie from Netflix. It works like this: Users sign up at TurboVote’s website and request a voter registration form or an application to vote by mail. The requested form is delivered with a stamped, pre-addressed envelope, so it’s easy to fill it out and drop it in the mail. TurboVote will also text reminders about registration deadlines and upcoming elections to users to remind them to vote.

“Our mission is to make sure voters only need to worry about the issues and candidates and not the process,” Flaxman says.

Flaxman also wants to raise expectations for how democracy is supposed to work, noting that the current patchwork system is ripe for disruption. “When we started TurboVote, we wanted to figure out why the Internet has revolutionized everything but government,” he adds. “There are 7,000 different election authorities that run elections nationally, but they don’t have the money or the talent to build cool Internet solutions.”

TurboVote’s funders include Google, the Sunlight Foundation, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and the Knight Foundation. The voting service—which has already partnered with 26 colleges nationwide and plans to announce another 37 next month—will now be accessible to over 60,000 Southeast Michigan college students. (Flaxman says the universities pay the postage on their students’ voter registration and application forms.)

The timing for launching TurboVote in metro Detroit is perfect, since we’ll be casting crucial votes in November on local issues, such as whether to build a new (and much needed) bridge between the U.S. and Canada, or whether to keep an emergency financial manager law that attempts to get a handle on Detroit’s finances but also strips elected officials of their power and cancels union contracts.

Xconomist Rishi Jaitly, the Knight Foundation’s man on the ground in Detroit, is just as interested in what TurboVote can do in the years between big national elections, especially at a time when the positive momentum in Detroit seems palpable.

“All of our work is focused on giving Detroiters the opportunity to amplify their voices,” Jaitly says. “TurboVote is showing that it’s possible to drive big change when you use technology appropriately.”

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