Google Tool May Have Had Wrong Polling Place Locations for Hundreds of Thousands of Voters

Political technology and info company Aristotle says flaws in Google's poll finder tool are widespread.

Google polling locator

After a Fast Company editor got a wrong address from Google’s polling place locator this morning, we wondered whether others got similarly bad info on mid-term election day from Google's tool. According to Aristotle, a private company that provides political technology and data for campaigns, the Google polling place finder may have had locations wrong for as many as 727,000 households in the 12 states they sampled.

In other words, as many as a million or more people who Googled where to vote this morning may have been sent to the wrong place. In states such as New York, voting at the wrong polling place is prohibited.

“For people in this business, there are few things you lose sleep over more than sending people to the wrong polling place on election day,” John Phillips, CEO of Aristotle, tells Fast Company.

Following our story, Aristotle, which creates its own polling place locator tool, contacted Fast Company to tell us that, in the previous two weeks, they had been testing the data Google was using to determine its accuracy. For each of the 12 states they tested, they pulled 1,000 random addresses belonging to registered voters. They then entered those addresses into the Google tool to see polling places it produced. They then took those same addresses and inputted them into tools on the websites belonging to official election agencies, and then compared the output of the Google tool to the output of the election agencies.

The error rate from the Google tool, according to Aristotle’s analysis, ranged from 0.001% (for Iowa) to 18% (for the state of Washington). Extrapolating from that data, Aristotle estimated that Google’s data had incorrect polling place information for about 727,000 households in those 12 states (Arkansas, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Washington state).

Chart provided by Aristotle

Google’s election gadget, which is embeddable and therefore is probably sitting on sites across the Internet (including Facebook), draws its data from the Voting Information Project as well as directly from individual election boards. It was not clear as of this writing where the break might have happened.

The Voting Information Project, a program of the Pew Center on the States, draws its data directly from various election agencies around the country and makes it available for free to third parties to use for applications like Google’s tool, or the Mobile Polling Place Locator we told you about last week. In cases where agencies did not set up a pipeline via the Voting Information Project, Google receive polling place information directly from election agencies themselves.

Doug Chapin, the director of Election Initiatives at the Pew Center, told us that the VIP works "closely with election officials to get the most up-to-date official information." "We will continue to work hard to make sure that the information we get is not only easy for voters to find and use but is also accurate--a process which began long before Election Day 2010 and will continue going forward," he said.

A Google spokesperson told us this morning, "We are constantly updating the tool to make sure it reflects the most up-to-date information provided to us by the Board of Elections.” They also noted that the tool includes a link where users can send information about discrepancies. Reached again today, Google declined to elaborate on its statement following the Aristotle revelations.

Pundits may bemoan the lack of voter participation in our elections. But the problems with the Google tool's data simply underline the fact that, even in this hyperconnected era, data about polling places across the country is still not kept in a single, standardized location, which undermines the efforts of companies like Google to create tools that make it simple and easy for voters to find up where they should show up come Election Day.

In the meantime, if you haven’t voted yet and want to be super-extra sure of where to vote, you might want to locate your state or city election agency online and refer to their information. (For example, here’s the list of Polling Place Lookups for election boards in California.)

Did Google's tool send you to the wrong polling place, or were you unable to vote because of that? Let us know at ideas@fastcompany.com.

Update: Voters Tell of Being Mislead by Google Polling Place Locator

 

Additional reporting by David Zax

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5 Comments

  • Michael Geary

    One major factor this study probably missed is the large number of bug fixes we made in the last week and days before the election, both in the polling place data API and in the web front end.

    Yes, in an ideal world, we would have had all problems fixed, and the app completely stable, weeks ahead of time. In the real world, we, and probably every news and election related organization, were scrambling to fix as many problems as we could so the voters would have accurate information.

    Mostly we succeeded. Sometimes we failed. But at least we didn't put out press releases accusing other services of giving out wrong polling places for Washington - which as Demos Gupta points out does not have polling places in most counties

    The election gadget web app is Open Source, BTW. There are no secrets in it; all my mistakes are right there in the revision history, which you can find with this search:

    election gadgets google code

    Yes, Open Source lets you finally answer the question: "What did he code, and when did he code it?"

    -Mike (author of the voter information gadget web front end, not a Google employee, and not speaking for Google)

  • Demos Gupta

    Over half of these "errors" are from Washington state. But Washington state DOESN'T HAVE polling places (except for one county) - almost the entire state votes by mail. And polling place information for that one county is not available from the Secretary of State based soley on street address - you'd need the name of the registered voter.

    So what data is Aristotle using to find these "errors" exactly?

  • Tom Smith

    I don’t feel that Google’s intent was to mislead voters but the tool should have been fully developed to insure accuracy.

    If New York City had inaccurate data that is a significant number of voters that could have been mislead and not a few isolated cases. It looks like Google assigned polling location based off the nearest polling address to the address entered by the user. In most cases that is accurate but states assigned polling locations based off zip, city, and county borders. So the polling location next to your house that is in a different city may not be your actual polling location.

    Also, Google has a unfair advantage to it’s “competitors” and official state polling location search sites because when you do a search on Google for “where do I vote” the Google tool is the first item displayed. How do you think Google got so high in the search results?

  • Michael Petersheim

    Are you seriously complaining about Google offering their own services first in search results from their own search engine?!? If you don't want to use Google, search with Bing or AltaVista, but the complaint you're making is kinda like saying shoppers at Sears who are asking for a particular item must be informed that JCPenney and WalMart also carry that item...

  • Chris DiBona

    So we found a few cases where we had some out of date information from a few secretaries of states office and fixed it pretty much immediately.

    Publishing a bs table from a competitor, Aristotle, whose big complaint is that we don't match their database, which we refused to pay big money for, is ethically wrong for Fast Company or Gizmodo to do.

    We helped literally millions of people to find out where they could vote today, and we're very proud of that work, which was nearly flawless.

    Chris DiBona (Googler, and involved in the polling place locator api)