Vote safely: How to find a trustworthy election ballot drop-off location

With all the FUD being generated about US election security, it's more important than ever to make sure your vote is actually counted.

Boosting voter confidence this November with cloud-based ballot tracking

President Donald Trump claims mail carriers in West Virginia are "selling the ballots" and that the postal service "is losing 30 and 40 percent [of mailed-in ballots]." These are lies. It's all part of an attempt to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt around the election. Meanwhile, the California GOP has installed unofficial ballot drop-off boxes that state officials say are illegal. Think your vote will be counted if you were to drop your ballot off in one of these? I doubt it.

So, what can you do? How do you make sure your drop-off ballot or early vote doesn't disappear into a black hole? People from Google, Microsoft, and other companies have come up with their own answer: WeVoteSafely.org.

WeVoteSafely is a non-partisan site, run by volunteers and without corporate support, for US citizens who are worried about voting in-person on November 3 and concerned that the US Postal Service will lose their ballots.

To help with the third option for voting -- ballot drop-off -- WeVoteSafely offers a searchable listing of legitimate authorized ballot drop-off locations. Users can locate their nearest ballot drop box by entering their address or using a location service. They will then see a map showing exactly where real drop-off boxes are located. The map also provides a link back to the source of the collection box information to provide trust in the data. 

Tara Grumm, Director of Microsoft Research Outreach, explained, "WeVoteSafely.org is a public service, the site does not display ads, track users or collect any personal information other than the location data needed to provide accurate voting information. The location data is discarded after use, and the site only tracks county-level information about usage to identify gaps in data or other issues to fix."

The data has been collected by volunteers and its sources can be found on a county-by-county basis. This data was then gathered into Google Sheets and Excel workbooks. Volunteers collected information on the type of safe voting location (e.g. ballot drop box versus early voting); the location's physical address; and the URL of the authoritative city/county/state source for the information. Additional elements -- such as dates/times of availability and location notes -- were also captured, where available.

Don't trust the data? The group understands your skepticism. From their FAQ: "It is ALWAYS a best practice to NOT blindly believe something you happen to read on the Internet. That is even (especially!) true with information on voting. Every location on our maps include a link back to the original city/county/state source of official information." 

The site uses a human-curated, crowd-sourced search engine and the FAQ notes that while "there is a LOT of cutting/pasting that went into building this site, we might have missed something along the way." So, if you find an error/omission or have updated information, they want you to tell them so they can fix the problem.

The data for each legal drop-off site is then geocoded. Confusion is still possible -- for example, LaGrange, IL vs La Grange, IL -- therefore, some manual corrections were made to the data. 

This data is then loaded into Microsoft's Power BI, a business analytics service running on Microsoft's Azure cloud. The front-end uses Google Maps. 

Even now there are a few outstanding issues. Some states and counties haven't finished nailing down their drop-off and early voting sites. Fairfax City and Fairfax County in Virginia, for example, is still proving troublesome. Still, the database covers 98% of the country with over 16,000 locations.

Worried about your own data? The group wants you to know: The service collects no personally identifiable information. That means:

We do NOT use cookies
We do NOT use any third-party analytics tools or plug-ins
We do NOT log/track your specific address or lat/long location information (however, we DO
track the city, county, and state that users are querying for to help prioritize our dropbox/early
voting location research efforts)
We do NOT use unique user identifiers on sites across the web
No tricks, no gotchas, no exceptions

I checked the site with my own privacy tools and it's as clean as a whistle. I also looked at its data for my own home county, Buncombe county in North Carolina, and found it was accurate. If you want to vote early and you want to make sure your vote is counted, I highly recommend this site.

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