You can gaze with clear eyes at Election Day--which is just around the corner on Nov. 3--and wonder: Why has this process, for voters, essentially remained the same for decades?

Between self-driving cars and the Internet of Things, the fruits of innovation seem to be everywhere--except voting booths. But all of that could be changing. IDEO, the renowned global design firm, has been working with Los Angeles County--the most populous county in the U.S.--on a new touch-screen ballot box. The idea is that improving the ballot box can potentially solve a big problem: Why did only 36 percent of registered voters in 2014 actually vote?

As it turns out, IDEO isn't the only creative entity with skin in the voting game. Startups and innovators of many stripes are providing myriad Election Day solutions to consumers and businesses, in categories like fundraising, voting logistics, and the political system itself. Here are seven of them:

1. Agora.

What if you could use the web and conferencing technology to create the virtual equivalent of a town hall with a candidate or elected official? That's what Agora does. These are not mere chatrooms where trolls can anonymously vent their spleens. Agora's algorithm runs a rigorous 10-point check using public data to verify users' identities--so you can't fake your identity or be anonymous in the town hall.

The five-employee startup was spawned at Harvard's i-lab and is in the process of raising capital. It has launched in Los Angeles, Roanoke, and Boston outskirts Cambridge and Somerville. Here's founder Elsa Sze giving a short talk about her path to launching the company:  

 

2. BallotReady. 

To solve the problem of low voter turnout, IDEO, as we noted above, is focusing on the ballot box. BallotReady believes a lack of reliable information about candidates--especially in local elections--is also part of the problem. BallotReady hopes its product--a web-based resource providing voters with reliable candidate info--is part of the solution. 

"Type in your ZIP code and it promises instant information on every candidate on the ballot in the area, including voting records, endorsing organizations and news articles. All the data is linked to the original source," notes Sujatha Shenoy on Quartz.

This year, voters in Kentucky, Virginia, and Indianapolis will try out the service. The goal of co-founders Aviva Rosman and Alex Niemczewski is to launch nationwide before the 2016 elections. And as Jim Dallke reports on ChicagoInno, BallotReady has landed David Axelrod (Obama's chief campaign strategist) for its advisory board. What's more, BallotReady recently announced a partnership with Microsoft to include the startup's data in election searches on Bing. 

So far, Niemczewski tells Inc., BallotReady has raised $125,000 in non-dilutive funding from places including the National Science Foundation, The University of Chicago Institute of Politics, The Knight Foundation, and Chicago Harris Center for Policy Entrepreneurship.

3. NationBuilder.

This 125-employee company helps political campaigns build websites, process donations, market via email to their donor databases, and sort through all of their donors and constituents. Nationbuilder uses a straightforward pricing model: Plans starts at $29 a month for campaigns or organizations with the smallest (5,000 people or fewer) databases.

The company has raised more than $34 million in venture capital. Its backers include Omidyar Network and Andreessen Horowitz. Omidyar partner Todor Tashev and Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Ben Horowitz sit on the board, as does Napster co-founder Sean Parker. 

Customers include the Republican Party of Florida, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and the City of Boston, Airbnb, Amnesty International, and the United Way. Hillary Clinton also used NationBuilder to market her book, Hard Choices.

4. Election Systems & Software.

Technically speaking, Omaha-based ES&S is not a startup--it's the world's leading provider of voting equipment and election support services. But as Cole Epley points out on Omaha.com, the company has channeled a startup mentality "to develop an idea that could make voting a better process throughout the United States and beyond."

ES&S director of emerging technologies Rob Wiebusch and director of innovations Shari Little spent 90 days at Omaha's Straight Shot Accelerator, honing this idea: using data to help election administrators run their polling locations more efficiently.

The company's almost ubiquitous presence on election day uniquely positions them to gather data about it. Wiebusch and Little believe this data could help polling admins solve an enduring problem: knowing which times of day to bulk up on staffing. Wiebusch told Epley that the product, called Election Insights, will be rolled out in the next two to five years.

5. Follow My Vote.  

Based in Blacksburg, Virginia, this three-year-old startup aims to improve the accuracy of voting systems worldwide. The company is developing an online open-source voting platform that would allow voters to independently audit the ballot box. To date, the company has not yet received any startup funding from investors. 

Partners include the California Association of Voting Officials (CAVO) and BitShares, a world leading cryptocurrency. For its beta test, Follow My Vote is looking to its own backyard: Virginia Tech University, CEO Adam Ernest's alma mater. Delta Sigma Pi (DSP), a coed professional business fraternity, will use one of Follow My Vote's systems to elect students to their executive positions. The test will "serve as proof that our system works and will help us build credibility," says Will Long, Marketing Manager. 

6. The Groundwork.

This startup, backed by Google's Eric Schmidt, is providing an overall tech infrastructure for Clinton's campaign, including building a "digital engagement platform," according to a report in Politico. More specifically, Tim Fernholz and Adam Pasick report in Quartz that the Groundwork is one of the Clinton campaign's biggest vendors, billing it for more than $177,000 in the second quarter of 2015, according to federal filings.

Michael Slaby, who runs the Groundwork, was CTO for president Barack Obama's 2008 campaign and the former chief technology strategist for TomorrowVentures, Schmidt's angel investment fund. Slaby did not immediately return an email from Inc. regarding the startup's funding to date.

7. Civis Analytics.

This Chicago-based startup, founded in 2013, specializes in data analytics. Civis Analytics was the source for a recent New York Times story about the chances of Donald Trump's winning the GOP primary. Founder and CEO Dan Wagner was the chief analytics officer for Obama's 2012 campaign. And like The Groundwork, Civis Analytics is backed by "an undisclosed amount of seed funding" from Schmidt, according to Lisa Kornblatt, the company's director of communications.

In an interview on Medium, Wagner says Schmidt was impressed by his team's work on the Obama campaign. "We had many of the best data scientists in the world," Wagner says in the interview, noting that the team accepted only 54 applicants from a pool exceeding 5,000 candidates. "While everyone could have gone to different companies, many of us wanted to stick together, and Eric was able to provide us with the seed funding we needed to keep the team together." Today, more than one-third of that group of 54 is still at Civis Analytics. 

The company boasts some prominent public and private sector clients for its data science products and services, including Airbnb, the American Red Cross, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing, and the Discovery Channel. 

Published on: Oct 21, 2015