Election Tech That’s Super Simple

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Friends, I love technology that is deceptively simple and actually helpful to human beings.

So I present to you: A new election information website for Centre County, Pa., that’s as easy to use as your favorite shopping site.

That’s it. It’s not flying cars, but it is extremely useful in a confusing election year.

This voter site and others like it were built in partnership with U.S. Digital Response, a group that started in the pandemic to match volunteers with technical expertise with local governments seeking help. It’s tech nerds putting their spare time to use.

The work of U.S. Digital Response shows that technology that does good doesn’t have to involve complicated inventions or turning over government functions to Silicon Valley giants. People with tech knowledge sometimes just need to listen to problems and assess how they can help without over complicating everything. (I mentioned U.S. Digital Response, organized in part by the technology executive Raylene Yung, in the spring.)

Michael Pipe, the chair of the board of commissioners for Centre County who oversees elections, said he heard from his peers in other counties about U.S. Digital Response and contacted the group in early September.

Within weeks, about five volunteers helped the county’s staff create the elections website from scratch, plus a database to organize the county’s poll workers and an online form for voters to schedule appointments at a satellite election site.

“It felt like it was too good to be true,” Pipe said when he heard about U.S. Digital Response.

In the past, the roughly 160,000 county residents looking online for information to register to vote, check a sample ballot or find their polling station had to hunt on the county’s main website to find the relevant information. Often, Pipe said, people couldn’t find answers to their questions and called or emailed local election officials. That was usually fine — until this year.

The pandemic, new state laws and extensive lawsuits over Pennsylvania’s election plans have made voting more confusing.

Centre County knew the status quo wasn’t good enough, and Pipe said officials hunted for commercial vendors to create a new website devoted to election information. He was quoted costs of up to $40,000, he said. The county paid nothing for the election services that U.S. Digital Response volunteers helped create.

Now, about 1,000 people a day visit Centre County’s election website, Pipe said. “It’s been about saving personnel time and a better customer service experience for our residents,” he said.

“You can’t do public policy if you can’t make the damn website work,” is how Robin Carnahan, a former Missouri secretary of state who is helping lead U.S. Digital Response’s election projects, put it to me.

Pipe said this is his 18th election as a county commissioner, and it’s a doozy. He said the new website, with clear information and election returns, is also a way for officials to build faith among voters in a year with lots of misinformation and mistrust about the election process.

Pipe is working long hours ahead of the election — the day I spoke with him, he said he returned home from work at 4 a.m. and was back at 9 a.m. — but he said he feels like it’s worth it. “I enjoy this stuff too much,” he said. “It’s like every day is Christmas.”

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The automated calls to our smartphones are out of control, and The New York Times personal tech columnist, Brian X. Chen, has a brute-force suggestion to quiet them.

The robocallers have won.

Phone companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile said more than a year ago that they would start to squash these annoying, computer-generated phone calls at the network level. And yet our phones keep ringing with robots purporting to have important information about your student loans or even an upcoming tax audit. Sometimes it’s a message recorded in another language.

I’m usually the person giving you solutions, but the truth is we don’t have great tools to combat the scam calls. Sorry.

I’ve tried robocall-blocking apps, but they don’t work well because they rely on a database of phone numbers that have been flagged as robocallers. Scammers can dodge this by making it look as if their calls are coming from any phone number, even your mom’s.

The best fix I’ve found is an imperfect one: Block all numbers that you haven’t yet saved in your smartphone from calling you. In my experience, it’s the best option.

To stop calls from unknown numbers, do the following:

  • On iPhones, open the Settings app, scroll down and click on Phone and then tap on Silence Unknown Callers. Toggle the feature on.

  • On some Androids (such as Google Pixels and Samsung devices), open the Phone app, tap the three dots in the upper-right corner and select Settings. Tap Blocked numbers and toggle on Block calls from unidentified callers.

This fix isn’t ideal because you could miss some legitimate calls if you stop anyone you don’t know from calling. But in my experience, the pros outweigh the cons. The vast majority of calls I get from unknown numbers are from bots. Until the wireless phone companies get their act together, good riddance to the scammers. (If you want to reach me, try email.)

For a dose of Monday extreme cuteness, check out the baby panda at Smithsonian’s National Zoo getting measured. (Thanks to my colleague Rich Barbieri for alerting us to this video. We support bundles of fluff.)

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