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49th Ward Budgeting Elections Website Built by Stanford Team

By Benjamin Woodard | April 29, 2014 7:54am
 A Stanford University research team — including computer science student Sukolsak Sakshuwong (l.), 25, and researcher Tanja Aitamurto, 35 — has developed a website that could eventually allow residents to vote for 49th Ward budgeting projects from home.
A Stanford University research team — including computer science student Sukolsak Sakshuwong (l.), 25, and researcher Tanja Aitamurto, 35 — has developed a website that could eventually allow residents to vote for 49th Ward budgeting projects from home.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ROGERS PARK — A team of researchers from Stanford University has created a website that could allow 49th Ward residents to vote for ward budgeting projects from their computers or smartphones.

So far, members of the group have been piloting the online-voting tool this week at Ald. Joe Moore's 49th Ward office as residents decide where to spend $1 million from Moore's discretionary budget.

The participatory budgeting projects up for a vote this year include new carpeting for the Rogers Park Library, bus stop benches, park water features and a beach path extension along the lakefront, among others.

The team includes Finnish democracy researcher Tanja Aitamurto, 35, and computer science student Sukolsak Sakshuwong, 25.

On Monday, they helped voters navigate the simple website they built, which acts as a digital ballot.

This year, the tool can only be used on the team's laptops inside the ward office to officially cast a vote, where voter identities can be confirmed. But anyone can get a sneak peek at pb49thward.com.

In the coming years, the tool could be rolled out online and be used ward-wide to cast ballots.

"That’s our hope," Moore said by phone Monday.

As with any online-voting system, the main concern is security.

"We want to protect the integrity of the process," he said.

Aitamurto, who met Moore at a conference in France last year and became intrigued by the participatory budgeting process, said the project was unprecedented in the United States.

She said the experiment here could be a view into the future of voting in all elections.

Even though online voting would take years to implement in local elections, it could eventually become standard practice, she said.

In fact, it's already happening in some parts of the world, like in Estonia, where citizens have been voting online in elections since 2005.

"Once the time is right for digital voting for national elections [in the United States], it will happen — but it will take many years," she said.

If all goes well this year in the 49th Ward, she says, the tool could also be used as a template for other elections around the world.

Sakshuwong, the computer science student, said he coded the entire website himself, which includes features not available on the paper ballot, like maps of where certain projects would be installed.

The section of the ballot devoted to street resurfacing also includes an interactive map of which roads would be repaved based on what percentage of the overall budget is allocated to it.

Sakshuwong said most tech-savvy voters haven't had many issues using the tool — but some have struggled.

"One of the major challenges is that it needs to be very easy to use," said the former Google intern. "We have to make it really intuitive."

Aitamurto also said online voting in the 49th Ward could help attract a more diverse group of voters, something that some critics say isn't happening now.

But what about all the people who don't own computers or have limited access to the Internet?

She said that "digital divide" might not be as big as people make it out to be.

"We might underestimate the potential there," she said. "People who might not have laptops or might not use computers at work, they might still have a really good smartphone, just like we have seen today."

Also, she said, participation in democratic processes can be inherently difficult to bolster.

"Not everyone will be interested in democratic processes," she said. "There's never going to be 100 percent participation."

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