As debate rolls on over the impact of voter identification laws on elections in the United States, a new wrinkle has quietly been introduced: a little search engine you might have heard of called Google.
Starting Thursday, users across the United States who use Google to search for information on whether they might need a driver's license or other form of ID to cast a ballot at their local polling place will be presented with the nitty-gritty details of the oft-complicated voting identification requirements and laws — specified down to whatever spot in the country from which he or she happens to be searching.
The new results are part of a broader Google push to increase what we might call ambient civic awareness. Google searches for "How do I vote?," for example, bring up the step-by-step process for casting a ballot, either in person or by mail, with details, too, on how to make sure a voter is registered.
For the first time, details about how voters go about voting are being integrated directly into Google search results. The goal is to use geo-targeting, in a country with a midterm election voting rate of about 37 percent, to knock down as many barriers as possible that might keep a citizen from submitting his or her vote.
In the past, searches in Google for guidance on voting mechanics would produce a geographically-generic mix of Web sites for pro-democracy groups, local elections boards and secretaries of state offices. In 2012, Google created its own election hub Web site, but it wasn't popular enough to rank highly in Google's organic search results. In large part, that's a product of Google's own search algorithm: Our election-related searches, unsurprisingly, spike every four years, which means that there is not enough sustained attention to give an election-specific site traction.
Mobile has a been a particular focus of Google's election efforts, with good reason. The company predicts by the time the 2014 election has wrapped, half of election-related queries will have come from a mobile device -- shooting up from just 2 percent of all voting-related searches in 2008.
With that in mind, users subscribed to the Google Now, the company's location-aware and time-sensitive mobile alert program, are newly eligible to get "election information" cards, which alert voters to deadline and other details relevant to the U.S. midterm elections taking place on Nov. 4.