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Two State of Texas Election Information Websites?

A 2008 national survey of government portals for election information conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed (as nicely summarized by the title of the 2011 update to the original report), “Being Online is Still Not Enough.” The original report and the follow-up can be found online at http://www.pewstates.org/research/reports/being-online-is-still-not-enough-85899376525.

As befitting an online critique and survey of the efforts of each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia to inform and assist voters, the report and the 2011 addendum are both sophisticated presentations, with interactive maps, state-by-state comparisons, best-practices recommendations and examples, and so on.

Interestingly, a state’s economic size or per capita wealth does not seem to correlate strongly with how well that state does in providing online election information to its voters, except that as with so many other areas of government service, the State of Mississippi was judged to be seriously lacking.

With the caveat that any aesthetic critique of websites is going to be subjective, both Florida and Louisiana scored significantly better than Texas in terms of voter outreach, while California and New York voter information websites scored worse. Texas and the impoverished West Virginia are neck-and-neck.

As interesting as the state-by-state survey might be, I think the “best practices” suggestions made by the Pew Charitable Trust researchers were actually the most valuable aspects of the 2008 survey and the 2011 follow-up.

But frustratingly, the survey failed to ask, “why does Votetexas.gov (formerly votexas.org) exist in the first place, given that the State already had a comprehensive portal for voter information?”

“Outsourcing” of government functions is at least theoretically a morally and politically neutral concept. But in practice, outsourcing is often a euphemism for a whole host of questionable decisions.

In the case of Votetexas.gov, Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson (now at the Texas Department of Transportation) decided around 2006 to beef up various public service advertising efforts associated with voting. This led to a contract with Enviromedia to produce PSAs, ancillary election communication outreach, and a website with voter information on it.

EnviroMedia had the Secretary of State account until 2012. As Elections Director Keith Ingram mentioned in his deposition testimony in the Texas v. Holder lawsuit, the vendor for the 2012 “Make Your Mark on Texas” PR campaign was Burson-Marsteller. Santori Interactive MMDA is the subcontractor/solo app. designer responsible for the SmartTxVoter tablet/smart phone application that integrates with the votetexas.gov website.

Unfortunately, by outsourcing voter information that had previously been vetted and managed in-house, the Texas Secretary of State effectively took content control out of the hands of the agency staff, and gave it to a bunch of contract laborers. It’s not that the contract couldn’t have been been structured to allow the Elections Division to retain final editorial control over VoteTexas.gov, but that the contract cut the election law officials out of the loop.

VoteTexas.gov has all the earmarks and appearance of an official “in-house” government website, right down to the .gov top-level domain name indicator. At the same time, the official and actually authoritative site (www.sos.state.tx.us/elections) was redesigned to shuttle casual questions from regular voters and other non-election officials over to the votetexas.gov site. Know your websites! The votetexas.gov is the product of a for-profit marketing firm, and while I’m sure that those marketing pros are committed to providing accurate information, they are not the same people who actually write and interpret the state election law.

Texas voters may want to go to the “conducting your election” page at http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections for policy answers and actual election law advice that comes straight from the horse’s mouth.  It’s understandable that the Pew Charitable Trust reviewer could not have known that Votetexas.gov wasn’t subject to the same editorial review as sos.state.tx.us/elections when the 2008 and 2011 surveys were conducted.

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