Speech Technology Magazine

 

Voters Decide in Favor of an IVR

Voter registration and complaint systems were a hit during the 2008 national elections.
By Eric Felipe-Barkin - Posted Jun 1, 2009
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InfoVoter Technologies is like the Halley’s Comet of the interactive voice response (IVR) world. The Greater Philadelphia-area company provides IVR hotline solutions to nonprofit organizations, foundations, and news media clients to increase oversight and transparency during political elections. Its IVRs act as a kind of clearinghouse for reporting voting irregularities, telling callers the location of polling centers, and, for the first time in 2008, serving as the first stop for many in the voter registration process. 

Elections, however regular and predictable in frequency, have  long stretches of time between them: In the United States, national elections take place every two years. As a result, InfoVoter’s hotlines lay fallow for months at a time, followed by intense windows—sometimes as small as a week—where traffic spikes are immense. A company like that has only a flittering moment to prove itself.

“Hotlines like this are fraught with peril,” says Ken Smukler, president of InfoVoter. “If they crash, you die. On Election Day, if they don’t perform, if they’re not streaming content the way you represent it, if they can’t stream content, you will die.”

InfoVoter has managed to survive, in large part, because of the partnership it forged in 2002 with Contact Solutions to build and host its IVR, according to Smukler. At the time, Contact Solutions was itself just ramping up. “I was looking for more of a kind of a smaller shop that would look at my business as being something that they were interested in keeping and performing for,” Smukler says. “I needed a little more love, I guess.”

It took about two years for Contact Solutions to build a new system entirely from scratch. In 2004, the new InfoVoter system was rolled out.

Smukler has been impressed with Contact Solutions’ work and its ability to explain to him the inner workings of the IVR solutions it builds. “Since I don’t come out of an IVR background, they have to be able to communicate with me,” he says. “You always want to get a clear sense of what you’re paying for, and I think they do a good job at it.”

Lessons Learned

Rewind a few years. As a company, InfoVoter was born in the aftermath of the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election, which left a sour taste in many mouths even after the Supreme Court’s validation of George W. Bush’s victory. Many felt that the election was “stolen,” and that underhanded practices at the polls and confusion with the infamous Palm Beach County, Fla., “butterfly ballot” contributed to Al Gore’s loss. 

In diagnosing the election’s problems,  Smukler realized that better documentation was needed. An IVR could play a role, he thought, but only if it could capture contemporaneous recordings of voters having problems at the polls. This was a significant consideration because in 2000, attorneys had to track down voters who had problems at the polls and get them to file affidavits to make a case for voting irregularities—a daunting task.

Since its early days of building the IVR, Contact Solutions has added numerous modules on top of the system’s fundamental core, according to InfoVoter’s needs. Besides recording complaints, it can provide callers with poll locations and transfer callers to their local boards of elections by capturing information like their ZIP codes. 

But among the most far-reaching alterations to the original system was the voter registration module that Contact Solutions included for the first time during the 2008 elections. The Tom Joyner Morning Show, a nationally syndicated radio program with a listener base of about 8 million people across 115 media markets, was one of the media outlets that installed the InfoVoter IVR complete with the voter registration module. The Tom Joyner MYVOTE1 voter hotline was finished and running by the tail end of 2007, and was subsequently picked up and carried over the Urban American Radio Network. It ran until just 15 days before the November general election. 

The move toward including the voter registration feature came from the demands of the Joyner Show and its partners, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Joyner has been active in voter registration for several years and tried in 2000 and 2004 to implement a call-in voter registration on his own, but, according to Smukler, failed to build a system robust enough to manage the traffic and fulfill on the direct-mailing side. 

The module Contact Solutions built collects relevant data from callers and transcribes it with voice recognition into a database. InfoVoter’s direct-mailing house then captures the database every 24 hours and generates a mail-out. 

All told, the system saw around 300,000 calls, including callers trying to find their polling locations and others registering complaints. Nearly one-third came from callers registering to vote.

Also in 2008, InfoVoter executed an agreement with CNN to provide technologies for the CNN Voter Hotline, 1-877-GOCNN08, a venue for voters to report problems at their polling places.

Exceeding Expectations

The line received 96,351 calls, of which 26,522 were complaints. The call volume exceeded the broadcaster’s expectations, which it had anticipated to be in the tens of thousands, according to a CNN press release. 

Complaint calls were broken down into subcategories for on-the-fly analysis. Data was searchable by state and problem types, which covered absentee ballots, voter registrations, identifications, mechanical errors, paper ballot mishaps, provisional ballot difficulties, coercion and intimidation, etc. These labels were generated by callers who specified to the IVR why they were calling.

Of the complaint calls fielded by CNN, 31 percent were related to registration, 14 percent to mechanical issues, and 12 percent to poll access. California, New York, and Florida received the most complaints—4,286, 4,040, and 3,622, respectively—while North Dakota received the fewest, with just 23.

“On Election Day, the content coming off of the hotline was driving coverage both on-air and off-air,” Smukler says.

Mark Whittle, chief operating and technical officer of Contact Solutions, says CNN used the data to paint big-picture trends, streaming audio files of the calls and sending producers out to find voters who had registered irregularities. 

“The voter hotline was a huge success,” says CNN’s political director and vice president of Washington-based programming, Sam Fiest. “In part because of the CNN Voter Hotline powered by InfoVoter Technologies, we believe that CNN’s coverage of voting irregularities and voting fraud was unmatched by any other news organization in America.”

InfoVoter’s CNN line as well as the Joyner line still receive calls—even in the off-season, according to Whittle. The numbers are low, but people still call for information about registration.

Both implementations of the 2008 voter lines seem to have been successful; Tom Joyner and CNN have committed to using an InfoVoter hotline in the national 2010 midterm and 2012 general elections. InfoVoter is also looking to expand beyond just elections. It is repurposing its system for the upcoming 2010 census and already has an agreement with CNN to create a hurricane hotline to launch in August.

“Hurricanes are actually similar to elections,” Smukler says. “They cross geographic areas. They have multiple problems that are arising simultaneously. They lend themselves to call traffic describing the problem. People need basic information—rather than a poll location, they need a shelter location.”


App At a Glance

During the 2008 elections, InfoVoter’s IVRs were used by:
  • The Tom Joyner Morning Show to field 300,000 calls, about one-third of them to register new voters; and
  • CNN to field 96,351 calls from voters reporting problems and other issues at their polling places.

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