The U.S. Digital Response, the nonprofit civic-tech group that sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic to assist local governments with online service delivery, is adding a new program focused on developing tools to help election officials.
The effort will see the organization’s engineers and managers work with county- and local-level election administrators on using open-source technologies to build products like poll-location search tools, election information websites and applications that help officials manage poll workers.
“What we specialize in is simple tools that make an impact that are quick,” Priya Garg, one of the heads of the organization’s new elections program, told StateScoop.
U.S. Digital Response has offered its assistance to election administrators since its founding in 2020, when it developed poll-locator tools for tribal voters in Arizona and built an app for Harris County, Texas, to recruit and organize poll workers in the country’s third-biggest voting jurisdiction.
The beefed-up elections program is the product of a major grant USDR recently received from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group of election-minded technologists that received $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, in 2020. U.S. Digital Response leaders declined to disclose the value of the grant, only saying that it was a “multi-million-dollar” award capable of sustaining the group’s work for several years.
None of the U.S. Digital Response’s election work involves the actual technology used to cast, count and audit ballots. Rather, the group said it’s trying to bring some administrative relief to officials trying to carry out elections with dwindling financial resources and rising amounts of disinformation seeking to undermine public trust in the democratic process.
“They have a tough job to do, and they give it all to make it happen,” said Lindsey Wilson, Garg’s co-leader in USDR’s election practice. “It’s not necessarily ‘I need a website’ or ‘I want this specific tool.’ It’s a specific challenge.”
The U.S. Digital Response offers its technology services to state and local governments free of charge. Already, Garg said, that’s saved some election officials significant amounts of money on useful items like websites hosting information for voters, like polling places, voting hours and candidate lists. USDR also boasts that it often works much faster than traditional vendors.
“One partner got a quote [for a website] from a vendor,” Garg said, not naming the jurisdiction. “It was $40K and two months versus free and a few weeks.”
Since its founding, the U.S. Digital Response has worked on election projects with 39 government partners and nine non-governmental organizations. Wilson said participating jurisdictions span some of the country’s most-populous, like Harris County, to rural villages, regardless of those places’ partisan leans.
“We work with the smallest of counties out in rural areas all the way up to urban counties. Republican counties counties, Democratic counties,” she said. “We’re really here to make a commitment. We’re going to be here as long as officials need us.”