Site uses voters to monitor polls

Election Day just entered the age of Wikipedia.

Voting snafus on Election Day could be easier to track this year, thanks to a Web site launched last week by Harvard professor Archon Fung. The site, MyFairElection.com, relies on user-generated content to monitor polls nationwide and then relays information about those locations to journalists, voters and public officials. Fung acknowledged that the site’s effectiveness may be limited Tuesday because of its low profile, but said he hopes to grow the site beyond Election Day 2008.

“The whole idea is that a bunch of information can be generated by voters themselves,” Fung said in an interview Monday. “There’s been a lot of focus about the problems of the electoral process so far, but we also want to know where the polls are working well.”

Before heading to their polling place Tuesday morning, voters nationwide can turn to MyFairElection.com to find information about their own polling place provided another voter has reviewed the polling location beforehand. After voting, users can rate their overall poll experience and post individualized comments to the site. Journalists and election officials may contact voters and to check the truth of the postings if the voters agreed, when signing up for the site, to make such information available.

Although the site carries a low-profile — a total of 721 voters in 48 states had signed up by Monday evening — ABC News may decide to use the site on Tuesday night.

“In theory, [MyFairElection.com] will let us learn about problems that are in the country that we wouldn’t learn about,” ABC News Senior Producer Elizabeth Tribolet told the Harvard Crimson Sunday. “We have hundreds of sources that we check in on, but when you have the voters coming to you it creates a whole new opportunity.”

Work on the site began in the summer of 2008 after Fung talked with several professors, including Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken, about the feasibility of such a site. In a concept paper from July 2008, Fung argued it would be “desirable” to use the rating technique of sites like Amazon.com and TripAdvisor.com to monitor Election Day polling places. The site, Fung wrote at the time, could then be used by “politics junkies, journalists and campaign activists” in order to assess and respond to election conditions in real time.

In July, Gerken praised the site on the blog of Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin.

“What makes Fung’s idea promising is that it’s a ‘here-to-there’ solution,” she wrote. “It doesn’t directly change how our elections are run. But it helps create an environment in which change is possible.”

Although she is not directly involved with the site, Gerken remains enthusiastic about its potential to increase election transparency, especially in an election that many pundits are predicting will slide heavily toward Democratic nominee Barack Obama. In a telephone interview Monday, Gerken said the site could bring voting problems to light in districts where massive margins skewed towards a candidate may mask voting irregularities.

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