Voter Empowerment Goes High Tech

August 31, 2012

By: Evan Brown

The "Social Media" VoteWhat if, when your boss catches you perusing Facebook, you could tell them that you’re actually doing your civic duty? What if you could order a voter registration form on a plane as easily as ordering an overpriced snack box from the flight attendant? Or shut down voter suppression attempts with the push of a button?

Far from wishful thinking, a new spate of social media platforms and smartphone apps are allowing some citizens to do all of the above, and more. Those who are developing and promoting these “citizenship 2.0” tools see them as a way to engage the younger generation in the political process, on their own terms.

New Approaches for a New Time and a New Generation

Many of the tried-and-true political cues and ways of doing business are no longer relevant to those who are just joining the voting ranks. Emerging technologies and shifting attitudes are set to usher in a sea of change in how democracy is practiced, according to those studying “Millennials,” the generation coming to age in this decade.

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This year’s Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2016 reveals that young adults have some radically different points of reference from their parents, or even older siblings. These soon-to-be voters differentiate themselves from their older siblings and parents by how they get their news, what American values mean to them, and how they view the democratic process. Because, as this year’s Mindset List states, “the Class of ’16 was born into cyberspace,” some states and organizations are taking steps to engage them in the way they are accustomed to being engaged: via social media. Some of these methods include Facebook apps and mobile voter registration, among others.

Do you “Like” Registering to Vote?

In Washington State, the latest Facebook app might just result in higher rates of voter participation. The Washington Secretary of State’s office relaunched its MyVote app this month, which is intended to “provide many unregistered Washington residents with a secure, convenient way to register while using Facebook".

The app uses your Facebook information to verify your identity and check your Washington State residency and voter registration status. If it all looks good, registration is just a matter of clicking the submit button.

Voter Registration Goes Mobile (and Airborne)

The airline Virgin America has long prided itself on innovative, interactive amenities, particularly aimed at the younger crowd, but who knew owner Sir Richard Branson has a soft spot for civic engagement?

From now until the election, in-flight media will also include a “make a difference” menu, through which passengers can download a mobile app created by Rock the Vote that will enable them to register to vote (only, of course, if the cabin crew says it’s safe to use electronics). Fitting for a merger of tech and democracy, the app was rolled out on the inaugural flight of Virgin’s direct route between San Francisco and National Airport in Washington, D.C.

Election Info at Your Fingertips

Washington isn’t the only state to see the potential of engaging voters via social media. Though Facebook registration is still a ways away in most states, the Arkansas Voter View mobile app, for example, enables you to look up your registration status, find out where to sign up to vote, and download a voter registration form that’s ready to be mailed in.

A major consortium of civil rights groups is taking the Arkansas concept and spreading it nationwide with the Election Protection smartphone app. Concerned that confusion about voting (and possible voter suppression efforts) could diminish turnout and deprive citizens of their basic rights, Election Protection unveiled this tool to make sure users have the knowledge they need to participate.

“One of the target audiences for the software is, naturally, tech-savvy younger people, who have proven to be less likely to vote, as well as less informed about voting requirements,” said the president of Rock the Vote, who helped develop the app.

The Future: Vote-By-Phone?

With all of the new media tools related to voting that now exist, the big exception is one that would actually enable people to vote through their electronic devices. To our knowledge, no states have e-voting close to being in place (if they are working on it at all). However, that has not stopped developers at Rice University from coming up with an iPhone voting app that could do the trick.

Despite lingering security concerns, the lead designer – Bryan Campbell – called internet voting “inevitable,” and said, “it follows that smartphones and other internet-capable mobile technologies will play a role."

These are but a few of the many new tools for increased civic participation. Combined with efforts to close the digital divide, these apps give not just millennials, but all voters and potential voters, the needed nudge toward participating in the democratic process.

 

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Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137