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Getting Out the Vote with OpenID Connect

Shai Sachs

The leaves are turning and pumpkins are going on sale, and that can mean only one thing: Political campaigns are gearing up to go door-to-door, asking for your vote.

With Election Day fast approaching, candidates on the ballot for everything from the state house to the presidency will be sending their supporters to voters' homes. A wealth of academic research shows that this sort of in-person contact is the most effective way to motivate prospective voters to cast a ballot. As we get closer and closer to Election Day, we'll see more and more activists going door-to-door to help progressive candidates win.

This flutter of activity poses a couple of technical challenges for us; storing and maintaining voter contact data for Democrats is a key part of our mission. We want to make sure that each voter contact is properly attributed to the activist who knocked on that voter's door; that helps campaigns determine the effectiveness of their get-out-the-vote programs. And we need to protect voter data from unauthorized access.

One approach to this problem is to require user accounts for each activist who knocks on a voter's door. However, that approach would fail miserably in the context of any real-world campaign, since it would require field organizers to spend valuable time creating dozens of user accounts for activists who might only show up to knock doors once or twice in the course of an election season. We need a solution that is more scalable and time-efficient. 

That's where ActionID becomes such a valuable technology. It's our implementation of the OpenID Connect protocol, and we use it as the authentication mechanism for MiniVAN. Together with one-time passwords for voter lists, ActionID allows activists to quickly and securely gain access to groups of voters, and gives political campaigns the data they need - without wasting time creating lots and lots of user accounts.

Here's how it works. When a progressive activist shows up to knock on doors, he or she is told to download our MiniVAN app. To use MiniVAN, the activist creates an ActionID account. At this point, we have the activist's name and contact information, but the activist does not yet have any voter data.

When a field organizer wants to send a group of activists to contact voters, that organizer creates a list of voters, and divides them into geographical areas which we call "turfs". The field organizer typically creates one turf for each anticipated door-knocker. Each turf is assigned a unique identifier, called a turf number, which includes a randomized password. Turf numbers also expire after a certain period of time, to avoid unintentional data leaks.

In order to distribute turfs to volunteers, the field organizer simply gives each volunteer a turf number. The volunteer can then enter that turf number into MiniVAN. MiniVAN then retrieves the list of voters corresponding to that turf number, and pushes the voter contact back to VAN - stamped with the volunteer's ActionID.

Astute readers will note that we are actually only using half of the available tools. While ActionID fully implements the OpenID Connect protocol, thereby allowing MiniVAN to use it as an identity provider as well as an authorization mechanism, we only use ActionID as an identity provider. The authorization mechanism is actually the turf number, which is not used in the ActionID login process.

The reason for that is partly historical: we built MiniVAN long before the OpenID Connect standard was established. But a larger reason is simple practicality related to the user experience. In most get-out-the-vote efforts, it's not possible to allocate turf to volunteers beforehand - quite often, field organizers don't even know how many volunteers will show up to go door-to-door. It's therefore difficult to authorize those volunteers against a central database; our system, which amounts to a series of one-time bearer tokens, is a workaround to this issue.

Regardless, OpenID Connect has served us well, with an easy-to-use system that scales well. It allows field organizers to focus on the hard part of their job - motivating volunteers and targeting voters - while empowering progressive activists to talk to voters securely. This simple but powerful technology gives campaigns the flexibility, openness, and security they need to mobilize their voters on Election Day.


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Topics: engineering