ElectionlineWeekly on New Effort to Locate Voters Using “Plus Codes”

[Image via 20i]

electionline.org’s Mindy Moretti has a very cool story in this week’s newsletter about an effort in Utah to use new technology to identify voters’ physical locations in areas where addresses don’t exist. Take a look:

Earlier this summer, armed with about 8,000 images from Google, two staff members for the Rural Utah Project set out to determine what those images were…residence, business, out-building, outcropping or shadow.

As part of the Rural Addressing Program, for about three months, the staff members visited every site and determined that about 2,500 of the images spread out all over rural Utah, but largely on the Navajo Nation, were actual businesses and residences that could then be assigned a “plus code.”

In partnership with Google Plus Codes, the Rural Utah Project is working to create addresses for 70 percent of the registered voters on the Navajo Nation as well as other rural Utah residents who may lack a proper street address.

So what exactly is a plus code? Plus codes were created by a group of engineers at Google and give everyone an address that can be used for voter registration, allow for deliveries and get faster access to emergency services. A plus code address looks like a regular address, but with a short code where the street name and number would be. These addresses exist for any location, even for places where there are no roads.

Plus codes are based on latitude and longitude. By using a simpler code system, they end up much shorter and easier to use than traditional global coordinates. Plus codes are free with no licensing fees or other costs and the technology is open-sourced.

TJ Ellerbeck, executive director of the Rural Utah Project said his organization had been working on voter registration and other civic engagement on the Navajo Nation — although he points out the RUP is not exclusively a Native voting rights group — when he spoke with someone from the Navajo Nation Addressing Authority who had seen Google present on their plus codes at a conference the year before.

According to Ellerbeck, the plus codes aren’t meant as a replacement for U.S. Postal addresses. Rural residents in Utah, whether living on the Navajo Nation or not, would still need to travel to their nearest post office or some other pick-up location for mail.

What they do help is ensure that a voter is registered in the correct precinct. Gone are the days when the local elections clerk would have to manually pinpoint where on a map a rural voter is. Now Ellerbeck said the plus codes are helping to solve a problem.

The final push of the project is to affix plus code signs to all the locations. The Rural Utah Project is preparing to do that soon. Ellerbeck did note that neither the project nor the Navajo Nation or Utah government would force someone to affix a plus code sign to their property if they didn’t want it.

“It [the feedback]’s been really positive for the most part,” Ellerbeck said. “Definitely there are people who are skeptical and worried about what having an actual address may mean, but for the most part are really excited. I don’t know if people realize the voting implications on a wide level, but people are really excited to be able to call 911.”

What impacts might plus codes, as opposed to traditional number/name street addresses have on data sharing? According to Shane Hamlin, executive director of ERIC, there really wouldn’t be any impacts.

“This is something we need to learn more about and we especially need to learn more about how Utah is using, or not using it,” Hamlin said. “But just looking over it, our system wouldn’t necessarily flag it. It would just show up as an odd address that we do get now and then.”

Hamlin said he could see where plus codes could be a big help to states like Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, places where there are wide swaths of tribal lands and even in more remote areas in Appalachia.

Interestingly enough, West Virginia solved their lack-of-street address problems in a rather unique way. After it was discovered that Verizon was overcharging West Virginians, the state and the company came to a settlement agreement with $15 million being used in a mapping project.  Today, everyone in the state has a recognizable street address.

“West Virginia has a complete address point data set, so everyone has a street address. There is an ongoing QA/QC program with monthly updates to the published dataset,” explained Brittany Westfall, director of elections. “The addressing project has reduced the burden on county clerk staff to manually determine the address point for rural addresses, which would sometimes require additional communication with voters. Most importantly, it has increased accuracy in our voter precinct assignments.”

One other possible use for plus codes could be in a place like North Dakota where the state’s voter ID law requires the government-issued ID to include a street address.

I will admit I had occasionally seen the Plus Codes in Google Maps and never quite understood what they were; this looks like a fantastic way to add location data for residences in order to reduce work – and error! – for election officials and voters alike. Thanks to Mindy for finding and sharing this story – and no matter where you locate yourself, hope you have a good weekend – and stay tuned!

2 Comments on "ElectionlineWeekly on New Effort to Locate Voters Using “Plus Codes”"

  1. How can other states like Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan and all other places lacking addresses apply this for voter registration?

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