“I learned about the startling statistics,” Raunak said of the 2017 race that ended with two candidates tied at 11,608 votes apiece and with control of the House of Delegates determined in a drawing.
“They picked a name out of a bowl. A bowl,” said Raunak, now 16. He was incredulous that our electoral process can end up like a raffle or a bingo game. “To see that literally one vote can mean so much, I wanted to make a difference.”
The problem is that Raunak, of course, is just a teen from the Virginia suburb of Herndon who likes basketball, video games and computers. He can’t even cast that one vote.
But he’s also a smart kid, a junior in the land of the super-smarts: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And after he and some of his friends hatched their plan in July to make a difference through technology, they got 750 votes rolling.
With the help of two friends from Thomas Jefferson — alum Robert Greene and sophomore Sumanth Ratna — Raunak created a website that streamlines the process of applying for an absentee ballot.
The absentee vote is a huge story in this election, with 135,794 already returned as of Monday at 4:30 p.m., according to the Virginia Department of Elections. The last time all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up, back in 2015, the numbers were about half that.
Raunak worked with the nonprofit Vote Absentee Virginia and state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who, when he went door-to-door before the 2015 election, learned that there were a lot of people who wanted to vote absentee but were flummoxed by the online process to get a ballot.
Surovell traveled with an iPad and helped voters through the complex process of requesting absentee ballots. But Raunak and his friends — as youngsters do — balked at the clunky interface. His dad, who is on a business trip to New York this week, had to get an absentee ballot, and Raunak couldn’t believe how retro the site was when he looked at it.
They had a better idea: Start over.
So, between July and August, while most of their friends were raiding Dusty Divot on Fortnite, Sumanth and Raunak used Python, a programming language, to build an easier, nonpartisan website to get absentee voters their ballots — eabsentee.org.
The alum was their marketing department.
“Robert Greene, who’s a freshman in college, saw the chance to get a lot of college students to vote,” Raunak said. “I know the youth engagement is really low.”
Greene helped promote their tool on campuses across Virginia because he saw how few of his fellow college students were going home to vote. (None.) When absentee voting applications closed last week, they were thrilled when their analytics showed that 750 voters got absentee applications.
This is an important election for Virginia. Democrats hope to take the majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate. All 140 seats are on the ballot, and everything is close, with Republicans trying to hold their leads of 51-to-48 in the House and 20-to-19 in the Senate.
There is a wave of women running in this election, and a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that the issues they’re hitting on are popular with female voters — stricter gun laws, the Equal Rights Amendment and a higher minimum wage.
And when it comes to gun laws, D.C. residents should take notice of this election.
The majority of guns in the District come straight from the neighbors across the Potomac. Raunak can’t vote, but he’s making a difference. Be like Raunak, D.C. folks. Give your Virginia friends a poke and tell them to vote, even if you can’t.
For Raunak, these issues are important, sure. But this election is just a dress rehearsal for him. His team is hoping that their tool can expand and have a huge effect across the nation in the presidential election next year, especially when it comes to registering college students who are scattered on campuses across the country.
He still won’t be able to vote in 2020. “I’ll be seven months away at that time,” he said. That’s not going to stop him from making a difference.
Okay, adults. Your turn now.
Read more Petula Dvorak: