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W&M student reaches millions with voter registration program

  • Get Out the Vote:
    Get Out the Vote:  Robert West '23 helped design the Get Out the Vote computer program that more than 1.7 million people used to register to vote for the 2020 presidential election.  Photo by Nathan Warters
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Billie Eilish’s social media followers crashed a computer program William & Mary student Robert West ’23 helped design, causing a 15-minute scare that was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. 

The short-term shutdown was stressful, but it meant something very exciting: Thousands of people were rushing to use the program. 

“We didn’t have too many issues,” said West, a computer science and psychology major. “I think it only broke that one time.” 

Voter awareness is important to West. It’s a cause he has contributed to in major ways since his high school days in Fairfax Station, Virginia. He made his biggest mark with a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) computer program that influencers and celebrities like Eilish, a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, helped promote to get more than 1.7 million people registered to vote for the 2020 presidential election. 

The GOTV program, designed for Virginia-based non-partisan political advocacy tech company Phone2Action, is still in use throughout the country as off-year elections approach. On Nov. 2, Virginia will hold elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, House of Delegates and other offices depending on locality. 

{{youtube:medium|Cp3f0lTnD9U, Get Out the Vote}}

“I'm just ecstatic that everything is still functioning and accurate,” West said. “But it's really a whole different ball game to get people to know about these elections that aren't occurring nationwide.” 

The GOTV program, such as this one designed for NextGen America, allows people to register to vote, check on registration status and find information on voting locations, candidates and absentee balloting. 

It also includes up-to-date information on polling hours, with a link to add Election Day to Google or iCal calendars, as well as reminders for upcoming elections through November 2022. 

Power of influence

West was part of a small team that designed the program that companies and social media influencers turned into their own branded page to push out to employees, customers and social media followers. 

Companies like Instacart created websites to promote GOTV, as did celebrities like Eilish and other social media influencers. 

Eilish pushed the program in a series of social media posts that created a temporary panic for West and the rest of the design team. 

“Sometimes when you have that many people coming through, the servers can't handle it and then it kind of becomes a mess,” West said.  

Eilish appealed to younger voters, while influencers like the band Dead & Company promoted GOTV to an older demographic. 

“That was really crazy because you had days where it would spike and you'd have a million people over the course of the day visiting the page, and you'd have 100,000 people in a day registering to vote, and it just blew our minds,” West said. 

Although he no longer works for Phone2Action, West still communicates the importance of voting to friends and classmates at William & Mary. 

“Everyone should be voting because elections are incredibly important from the local level to the highest offices in U.S., to the president,” West said. 

William & Mary students register to vote during a voter drive at the Sadler Terrace on Sept. 28, National Voter Registration Day. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)An early start

West began working at Phone2Action as an intern while still in high school in northern Virginia. He was interested in the company’s civic technology work, which was aimed at making it easier to contact legislators and do online advocacy pushes. 

His early time at the company was spent working on various projects, including one involving social media snap polls on political topics and political figures. 

“I was at a point where I knew I wanted to study computer science in college and go into software development after college,” West said. “But I also had this itch for government and public policy, so I thought it would be a really cool place to kind of merge those two interests.” 

West and a small team of designers started working on the GOTV program as a way of building on Phone2Action software that debuted in 2016 but wasn’t as “robust or customizable,” West said. 

The new iteration of the program is modern and sleek. The goal was to appeal to more people through influencers and companies. 

“We didn’t want it to be something that looked like it was dated and suspicious, especially in the wake of everything that happened in the 2016 election,” West said. “So we were kind of in charge of completely redoing everything from the ground up.” 

Most of the design process fell to West and another programmer. 

“I was working on the front end, making sure that you had all the widgets you need, making sure that we could add these new sections for updates about changes in the wake of the pandemic,” West said. “But originally I had been working more on the back end, making sure that you were getting the right data about where your polling place was, making sure that you had the right candidates coming up, the right current elected officials and pulling all of that.” 

It was a meticulous process that required 100% accuracy for every element and variable included in the program. 

The end product far exceeded expectations, West said. It became a more comprehensive site with all of the regulations, all of the latest updates about how COVID affected voting in each specific locality and everything voters needed to know about absentee mail-in ballots. 

The GOTV program gave current updates on polling changes brought on by the pandemic and spelled out alternative options for voters who weren’t comfortable waiting in line at polling locations. 

“We wanted to make sure everyone knew of every avenue and make sure they knew they could request a mail-in ballot,” West said. 

While he is still interested in working in technology and politics, West has other projects in mind as well. 

“The project I really am itching to work on has more to do with using technology and applying it kind of in more education settings,” West said. “Primarily, I want to do something with doing artificial intelligence-based diagnostics for learning disorders. I think that would be really interesting and valuable because I think that's an area where we're losing a lot of people.”