Developing for Democracy: How an App Could Get More People to Vote

The creators of the mobile app "My Vote Counts" say you're more likely to vote if you've made a promise to friends and family — and if you believe your vote actually matters

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What to Know

  • My Vote Counts is a free app that guides you through 2020's unusual mail-in election process without gathering any personal information about you
  • The app allows you to share your promise to vote with friends on social media, report any problems you encounter while voting, and anonymously add your ballot choices to running totals online
  • Available on the App Store and Google Play in mid-October, the non-partisan, open-source app is developed by some of Silicon Valley's earliest advocates for free software

Long before Zoom yoga and FaceTime happy hours were a thing, Brian Fox and David Henkel-Wallace had teleworking all figured out.

"We've been collaborating electronically since the 1980s, over the internet," Henkel-Wallace said. "Far before there was even a World Wide Web."

The two were early players in the movement to promote open source software: apps and operating systems that are built collaboratively by a community of developers, and are free to distribute and modify.

Two men looking at each other -- on the left, one is inside a computer screen. On the right, the other is sitting next to that screen at a glass table.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Brian Fox and David Henkel-Wallace are used to collaborating remotely, though this is the longest they've gone without working together in person.

"We literally would have customers who would tell us to our faces, 'You guys are idiots ... for giving away your source code,'" Henkel-Wallace said, as Fox nodded in agreement on a monitor next to him, joining the conversation via Zoom from his home in Santa Barbara.

Decades later, open source software has become the foundation of the internet. Android and Linux are open source operating systems, and even historically-secretive Apple has open source components running under the hood of its devices. But there's one thing that isn't open source yet: Elections. Fox and Henkel-Wallace want to change that.

"It gives you multiple things," Henkel-Wallace said. Most importantly: "Trust. Because the people on the election committee or individual voters can go look for themselves to see how the software works."

Hands on a computer keyboard
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
David Henkel-Wallace uses the open source text editor EMACS to make tweaks to the source code for the My Vote Counts mobile app.

Trust in election results has been a looming question swirling around this year's contest for the White House, even back in February at the RSA cybersecurity convention in San Francisco. Exhibitors showed off case studies of campaign and party security breaches, and technologies made to keep voting machines and memory cards from being tampered with.

More recently, those concerns resurfaced during the first presidential debate.

"This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen," President Trump said when asked whether he'll accept the election results if they don't go in his favor. "As far as the (mail-in) ballots are concerned, it's a disaster."

Donald Trump on debate stage
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
During the first presidential debate of 2020, President Donald Trump made allegations that mail-in voting is already leading to election fraud.There is no evidence to support those claims.

President Trump's allegations that mail-in voting can lead to fraud are unfounded, and numerous experts have testified to the contrary. But Fox and Henkel-Wallace, who are already working on open source vote-counting systems for local governments that could eventually include San Francisco, saw a need that couldn't wait for another four years.

"So, let's quickly figure out something that people could use today, to feel more confident about the election process," Henkel-Wallace said.

In a matter of weeks, the two assembled a small team and developed an app they believe will help restore enthusiasm and confidence in the 2020 general election.

"It's called 'My Vote Counts,'" Henkel-Wallace explained. "Because your vote counts!"

splash screen for an app that says "my vote counts." Headline: "Your companion throughout the election process."
"My Vote Counts" is an open source mobile app launching in mid-October that forgoes the usual permission requests and intentionally gathers no information about you other than asking what state you live in.

The app, which is open source, asks users for no identifying information other than the state they live in. Based on that choice, it can provide information about polling places, registration and mail-in voting procedures, and give notifications when important deadlines are approaching. At each step of the way, it gives users a chance to share their participation in the voting process with friends on social media.

"What were the 'I Voted' stickers, but a share button — a share button in the real world?" Henkel-Wallace said. "Of course, in the COVID age, who's gonna see your sticker? ... But the share button is available!"

In a step beyond sharing with everyone, the app also allows users to share their promise to vote with individual friends and family members.

circular red sticker that says "I voted"
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
In a year when many voters will skip trips to local polling places and vote by mail instead, the My Vote Counts app aims to act as a virtual "I Voted" sticker.

"I believe that people will follow through on promises they make to their loved ones," Fox said. "Even if you're super tired that day and it's far away, your local polling place is closed, you have to drive somewhere else, you will still do it because you made that promise."

"If Brian sends me a note saying, 'Hey, I voted — have you?' That makes a big difference to me," Henkel-Wallace agreed.

The two believe generating excitement in social circles is one key to getting the vote out, but another is convincing people their votes will be counted, and will help decide the election.

That's the second main purpose of the app: publicly surfacing anonymous data about the voting process over the weeks leading up to Election Day, to provide some measure of transparency.

"Event timeline: 12 days - Must be registered to vote. 27 days - Submit an absentee ballot
Based on the state you say you live in, My Vote Counts will tell you how many days are left until important deadlines, and send you reminders if you let it.

"If you've got a mail-in ballot, your phone will be able to take the content of that ballot and upload it to the web — again, completely anonymously," Henkel-Wallace said.

With just a few clicks, modern smartphone cameras can scan a paper ballot with enough detail to allow software to interpret it, giving visitors to the My Vote Counts website running tallies for some important contests long before Election Day arrives.

"Having people upload their ballots is a beautiful thing," Fox said. "What if 3 million ballots in State A were uploaded, and yet only 2 million ballots are counted (by election officials)? There's a big discrepancy there that should be examined."

The website will also keep a tally of those who anonymously report through the app that they encountered problems voting — whether it's a missing mail-in ballot, long lines at polling places, or poll watchers whose behavior appears to cross a line.

"Record problems: Blocked at the pollince booth? Can't get time off work? Make an anonymouse report. Problems can't be fixed if nobody knows."
The My Vote Counts website will tally anonymous self-reported votes for important contests as they come in, and will also keep track of reports by those who say they were blocked or intimidated while trying to vote.

"You can say, 'I had a problem voting,' and you can say what the reason is," Fox explained while demonstrating a prototype version of the app via Zoom. "You can also say, 'I felt intimidated,' and then say more about that. And when you share this information, you're totally anonymous. You're just a random person who had a problem voting."

In some jurisdictions, the two said, academic researchers or voting rights advocacy groups may be able to contact voters through the app to follow up on those reports, using anonymous messaging.

"You can say, 'You can contact me,'" Henkel-Wallace explained. "We still don't need to know who you are. We know that this phone will need a notification (if) someone wants to contact (the phone's owner). We don't know who holds that phone."

The app is the beginning of what Fox and Henkel-Wallace believe is a long but worthwhile journey to get more Americans excited about voting, and convinced that their votes will help determine the nation's future.

"If 20 people vote, then 20 people are deciding what's gonna happen in the governance of this country," Fox said. "The more people that vote, the more likely it is that we're building what we should be building: a government by the people, for the people, of the people."

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