Harris County, Texas, the third-largest county in the United States, has more than 4.7 million voters. County employees were working hard during the summer of 2020 to prepare for the November election. The team managing the county’s Student Election Clerk Program, which encourages high school students to serve as election clerks, was overwhelmed with a completely manual system. In normal times, the program’s mix of paper applications, spreadsheets, and emails was inefficient. In the context of COVID-19, with safety concerns and an increased need for student election clerks due to additional early voting days, the system was at its breaking point and causing team member burnout.
The Harris County Student Election Clerk Program team needed a new system that could manage thousands of student applications, polling place assignments, and communications far more efficiently. The team wanted to consolidate the current mix of paper and electronic applications into a single format, and have those applications feed into an easy-to-manage database that enabled them to assign shifts and communicate with election clerks at scale.
U.S. Digital Response (USDR) volunteers used Airtable, an online platform for creating and sharing databases, to build an efficient and scalable solution for the Harris County Elections team. First, the team put together an Airtable form to serve as a new application for high school students. Responses to that form are automatically fed into the Airtable database in a spreadsheet format, giving the Harris County Elections team a clear, consolidated view of the applicants’ information. Next, the USDR team used Airtable Automations to automatically collect parent or guardian approval, which was a particular pain point in the previously manual process. Once the necessary information was collected, the team used SendGrid, a cloud-based email delivery system, to automatically send messages to applicants. Further automation was enabled by connecting Airtable with SignUpGenius, using an automation tool called Zapier, to allow students to sign up for their shifts themselves, rather than being assigned manually.
The new Airtable system requires no manual data entry, allows all applicant data to be saved and managed in one place, and even links to past elections data, enabling students to have an ongoing system profile.
“There is no proper way to articulate the impact that USDR had on our program. Our new system is easy to use, easy to share, and easy to explain. And it saved me and my team days, if not weeks, of work.”
In a regular year, the Harris County Elections team would manually review an average of 5000 student applications. In total, these applications could take months to review. USDR volunteers built a completely new online application in less than two weeks and launched a full database management system within two months. These new tools helped the Harris County Elections team process more than 7000 applications, and staff more than 700 student election clerks across more than 100 polling locations over the early voting and Election Day periods. In part because of the work of the student election clerks, who were focused on polling place technology and providing real-time updates to an online polling place wait time feature, there were virtually no lines in Harris County on Election Day – something previously unheard of.
In March 2021, the Harris County Elections team won a 2020 Clearinghouse Award, commonly known as a “Clearie,” from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for its management of the Student Election Clerk Program. What was once an inefficient and under-recognized program gained national recognition for its impact on students and voters.
“I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work with Harris County. The work we did for the November 2020 elections showed me the true potential for technology to positively impact our democratic processes, if applied thoughtfully.”