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LAist Interview: Debra Cleaver of Long Distance Voter

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Photo by Dean Terry via Flickr

Record numbers of Americans are casting their votes early, through early voting in-person or via absentee ballots. However, the absentee ballot process varies from state to state and can be immensely confusing. This year a few dedicated people set out to simplify the absentee voting process for Americans in all 50 states, and created Long Distance Voter -- a comprehensive website with information on each state's process for requesting absentee ballots, deadlines, and voting by mail. Of note, many states have simplified the process (for example California's Secretary of State's office hascomprehensive information, and for those in Los Angeles County, and you've likely seen the billboards for around town).

LAist talked to Long Distance Voter's Founder and Executive Director, Debra Cleaver, who's based in Los Angeles.

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LAist: How and why did you come up with Long Distance Voter?

Cleaver: I started working with Swing the State (a now-defunct voter mobilization group) back in 2004. In 2006 a few of us attended a conference in Vegas, and, ironically enough, a couple of us forgot to vote before leaving. My friend Jon Liroff thought about that for a second and asked why no one was compiling all the absentee ballot information online. It was a lightbulb moment for us, but we were all caught up with other projects, so we didn't act on it. In January 2008, I decided it was time to act on Liroff's idea and started recruiting folks. Liroff came up with the name, I took care of our incorporation paperwork, and Long Distance Voter was born. We launched the site in April of this year. It's pretty surprising that this niche hadn't been filled already, but given our daily traffic, folks are happy we've stepped up.

LAist: What can you do with the site? What makes it unique?

Cleaver: The site is remarkably straightforward. It includes everything you need to register or vote by mail. It's not unique so much as it's comprehensive. We originally pictured a single page with all 50 absentee ballot applications. It didn't take us long to realize that absentee voting isn't exactly straightforward: each state has its own set of nit-picky requirements. Within a month of gathering data, we realized we'd need to write an absentee voter guide for each state. The guides include voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, deadlines, crystal-clear directions, and a breakdown of all the ID and residency laws. One thing that does set us apart from other groups is our responsiveness: if you get stuck at any point, you can email us and a real-life person will get back to you within a handful of hours. I haven't seen another group that provides this level of individualized support.

LAist: Who's behind Long Distance Voter?

Cleaver: Everyone at Long Distance Voter is a volunteer. Our core group fluctuates between 10 and 12 members, with five or six being truly active at any given point. We've got "staff" (i use that term loosely) in New York; Boston; Washington DC; Los Angeles; Providence, RI; and San Francisco. We're national!

LAist: And after the election in November, what's the plan for Long Distance Voter?

Cleaver: Long Distance Voter is here to stay, and we plan on beefing up our content over the next few months. We'll be adding information on when exactly to request your ballot, whether or not you need to request for each election, and when you're ballot will arrive. We touch on this information in our help section, but we'd like to incorporate the Secretary of States' answers into our absentee voter guides.

LAist: Any advice for the voters this year?

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Cleaver:Yes! California is one of the few states in the nation that offers permanent absentee voting -- which means you can apply just once and they'll mail you your ballot for every election. Also for those of you in California deciding to vote absentee this year, request your absentee ballot by October 21, 2008! (that's two weeks before the election). The deadlines are *technically* later (October 28th), but you need to mail your request in, the state needs to mail your ballot to you, and you need to mail your voted ballot back by election day. If you wait until the actual deadline, you might not get your vote in on time. Also, some states claim that your ballot can arrive *after* election day and still count, but honestly, they call the winner on election day.