How Social Media Helps And Hurts Elections

Tablets in 2000 had a passable Notes app, but Angry Birds was horrible.

Election nights are always fascinating to me.  Not only do you have candidates and issues but you also have analysis from across the spectrum and a wealth of different technologies to show you the results.  12 years ago the country watched while Tim Russert used an early tablet device known as a whiteboard to show the country how the entire election hinged on the outcome of Florida (a lesson we would continue to learn for weeks after).  Last night we had networks using giant interactive maps sketching out potential scenarios, zooming in on specific counties and comparing their results with previous elections.

Now that social media has reached a level of commonplace acceptance (we’ll talk about that in a future post) I found it fascinating to see how it became part of the election night process.  We were connected with our favorite reporters or candidates or analysts and could instantly see what they had to say throughout the night.  No more just waiting on a particular channel until they came back on or flipping between channels to find them.  And we could interact with our friends and colleagues around the world whether they agreed or disagreed with our political views.

Personally, I was able to participate in a group chat with ten friends whom I frequently email.  In the interests of being a bit more interactive we ended up on a giant Facebook chat session and over the night sent over 1,000 messages back and forth.  We had participants on both coasts, people in the middle of the country, even one Chicago resident who happened to be in Australia.  It was an amazing feeling to have these conversations as the night progressed and more than once I was thankful for what social media has done to connect people.

But as we’ve seen with so many issues, social media can have benefits and drawbacks.  Let’s be positive and start with the benefits. Beyond connecting people and providing a forum for discussion, social media is fast and widespread–two fantastic qualities for something so time sensitive as a day to conduct nationwide voting.  Some states in the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged northeast passed emergency laws that allowed residents to vote in any polling location given the difficulty in traveling.

Multiple polling location voting is also something that was available for the first Presidential election in my own, non-hurricane ravaged Travis County in central Texas.  Austin residents could vote in any polling location.  That’s a great thing provided you have access to a Twitter feed or connected account that would tell you while the line at a grocery store is 1.5 hours long there’s a polling location two miles away with nobody in line.  I expect that by the next election we’ll see a collection of apps or message networks that can better alert voters of potential lines and advise them where to go.  I also hope that trend of allowing people to vote in different locations continues.  That’s a great benefit social media can bring to the current election process.

There is, however, a dark side to social media and elections.  Social media has flooded us with opportunities to share content with our friends and community.  Status updates, locations, photos, videos, badges–these are a part of our lives and we want and, to some degree, expect to be able to share the content we choose with the audience we choose.  So we grow concerned or upset when we hear stories about how smartphones are not allowed at some state’s polling places.

The Citizen Media Law Project has a great table summarizing the various state laws on recording devices in polling places–whether the devices are allowed, whether there is a statement on their use, and whether you can record your own vote.  There is certainly an innocent side of taking pictures at a polling place.  Pictures of people voting for the first time.  Pictures of people proud to support their candidate.  Funny pictures of people dressed up like Big Bird in line to vote (because that’s how we roll in Austin).

But there’s also a dark side to pictures in polling places.  Like stories of employers who threaten employees with termination unless they take a picture of their ballot showing they voted for a particular candidate.  Or organized efforts to force proof of votes through threat of violence or rewarding with payment.  The risk of ballot recording can be determined by each state but it is something to keep in mind–my last post was about how social media has broken anonymity, a valuable commodity.  Certainly, anonymity for a ballot is an important value to protect and if it means we lose some funny filtered Instagram pics of a ballot as a trade-off then I hope most people will be okay with that.

However, elections are getting more complicated and now many voters do their research on their phones.  Possibly while in a long line waiting to vote.  Walking into a polling place and then being told you can’t use your phone can cause a bit of a panic if you’re struggling to remember dozens of propositions or ballot initiatives or local candidates.  You should be able to record your notes onto paper and then vote, if that’s an issue.  Still, that’s remarkably inefficient and something that social/mobility should be able to address.  I’m also hopeful the problem of recording via smartphone can be solved while allowing people to use their phones for appropriate items like accessing notes, but it is a tricky balancing act.

And then there’s the biggest issue of them all–why can’t we vote using our smartphones?  Not exclusively, of course.  There should still be polling places and absentee ballots and other measures.  But with the rise of smartphones across the country, shouldn’t we be able to use them to vote?  That may seem difficult or outlandish, but wouldn’t we have thought the same thing a few years ago about depositing a check with a phone (now many banks support this by taking a picture of the check)?  Or paying bills with your phone (even more banks support this, heck even Starbucks lets you do it)?  Or signing contracts (you can e-sign contracts on your phone now, even complex contracts like real estate closings)?  Those are activities that many years ago we couldn’t have predicted could be done with a phone, yet they are now commonplace.  Why not voting?

When you see video footage of people waiting in lines for hours to exercise their most fundamental of rights I would think everyone can agree that we should have a better solution.  Granted, many people were concerned about e-voting machines and you still see the random stories of glitches and rogue software so there’s sure to be some pushback on the idea of using your phone to vote.  But we’re fooling ourselves if we thought paper ballots were always secure–phones should be more secure than previous systems we relied upon for decades if not longer.  And there would always be other options.

Social media is about conversations and speech.  Voting is the ultimate realization of free speech.  Shouldn’t social media and the mobile technology wave be able to help bring voting into the 21st century?  It’s an idea worth pursuing and we’ve got a little under 4 years to work on it.

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Filed under Authentication, First Amendment, Identity, Laws, Social Tracking

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