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Palmetto Boys State votes by texting

The voting process is a significant part of all 49 American Legion Boys State programs. During the week-long program, many delegates run for various office positions and get elected by their peers. Elections oftentimes take place using the heads-down, raised-hands method or by an electronic ballot box. However, these types of voting mechanisms can prove inefficient as delegates may raise their hands more than once or a malfunction may occur with a ballot box. But Palmetto (South Carolina) Boys State found a way to engage citizens in the election process and ensure accuracy through text polling.

Text polling operates through a website called Poll Everywhere. Whether it's voting or submitting questions, Poll Everywhere gathers live responses through text messages that can be displayed in Keynote, PowerPoint or the web for delegates to view in real time.

The polls are created on Poll Everywhere's website and the process does not entail set-up or preparation requirements for delegates, only the monitor. Each poll is assigned a number to text a message to along with a keyword. For example, if Palmetto Boys State had three candidates running for president, delegates would send a text to the five-digit number the poll was assigned (e.g., 22333) and vote by typing in a keyword, which were the presidential candidates' last names.

Additionally, Poll Everywhere gave Palmetto Boys State delegates the ability to rate presentations, provide feedback about their most pressing issues and submit questions for guests speakers.

"We have guys who do not want to speak in front of a whole group, especially during question and answer period with guest speakers," said Stephen Lewis, Palmetto Boys State director. "If you use text polling, the young men can text a question and put the questions up on the projector screen. So those guys that are not out front still have a voice.

"Plus, by using this polling system, we found out early on in the week what was on the delegates' minds to help gear the program toward that week. We then shared that information with the boys, and then the candidates running for office positions knew what was important to their fellow citizens so they could target their speeches to what's on the guys' minds."

The only problem Palmetto Boys State encountered with text polling was minor: 60 delegates out of the 840 this past summer didn't have cell phones or didn't receive service inside the campus auditorium. The problem was solved by having those delegates defer back to voting by hand or ballot box.

And to keep votes from being skewed, Lewis advises to either release the keyword at the last minute, close the poll after a certain time, or close the poll when the number of delegates voting is reached. If a delegate tries to send more than one vote, he will receive a text that says, "You have already voted." And to ensure delegates do not share keywords with outside recipients to increase votes for a candidate, Poll Everywhere can be restricted so only specified phone numbers can vote.

For privacy concerns, Poll Everywhere guarantees that phone numbers are not shared with outside vendors. And there are no fees for delegates who have unlimited text messaging plans but for those who do not, it's 20 cents per text. Palmetto Boys State delegates are made aware in their registration and welcome packet that they will be using cell phones for texting.

The site offers five plans that can be paid on a monthly basis, and they vary in price depending on how many responses per poll you will receive. Palmetto Boys State had nearly 840 delegates this past year so they purchased the $375 plan that allowed them to receive up to 2,500 responses per poll. For responses of 30 people or less, the resource is free; up to 250 responses it's $50; and up to 700 responses it's $140.

"Overall, we found that by using text polling there was not only more participation but more engagement with the citizens. And it's easy to use," Lewis said.