Decision 2012: There’s an app for that
Post by Mark Riechers on 9/10/2012 12:23pm
Technology pervades every aspect of the 2012 election season, and not just when it comes to mocking the latest gaffe in real-time on Twitter.
Open source web applications, smart use of big data tools and the feverish adoption of smartphones have all been tapped by campaigns, news agencies and others to turn tech-savvy citizens into empowered voters.
Between now and November, voters will face airwaves jammed with campaign ads on every channel and occasional hoops just to cast their final vote; but tapping a few technological tools could make becoming an informed citizen as easy as checking Facebook.
It may still be a long time before local and state governments embrace any sort of system where citizens can register and vote entirely online, so for now we’ll have to make due with services that make registering the old fashioned way– via printed forms filed via snail mail–as easy as possible.
TurboVote, one of the more sophisticated voter registration tools on the web, is a full-blown platform for getting out the vote. A simple, step-by-step questionnaire augmented with mobile phone, email and social media registration allows the site to generate pre-filled voter registration and absentee ballot request forms, to either be printed and mailed by the user, or to be sent pre-printed to the user for a small fee.
The service also builds in hooks for a critical but sometimes overlooked portion of the self-registration process: reminding users to follow through and mail in their forms. TurboVote notifies users of deadlines and election dates via email and text alerts, along with a countdown timer to the next set of deadlines on the user’s profile on the website.
For those who want something a bit more barebones–or who want to build voter registration into a website of their own–the Democratic party has released the source code of their voter registration tool on GitHub. In non-geek, that means that anyone interested in registering new voters–including anyone from Romney supporters to Green Party groups to Ron Paul diehards–can implement the same voter registration tools in use on the Democratic Party and Obama campaign websites. You can get an idea of what a vanilla version of the tool looks like here.
Get media savvy
Of course, being armed with a vote doesn’t do much good without solid information to inform it, and there are plenty of tools on the web to help sort through the rising tide of election coverage and campaign ads that will saturate the media landscape for the next few months.
Google has a 2012 Election hub featuring clips from numerous media outlets, offering an especially helpful best-of for those either unwilling or unable to watch conventional cable news coverage this election season.
CNN and Facebook have partnered to offer a web app that can display which candidates are trending the highest in social media chatter, broken down by state, age, gender and time range–interesting information, if not especially useful when it comes to making a decision on election day.
Glassy Media’s Super PAC App offers something a bit more informative–the iOS app can identify the people and money behind a given political ad from a small audio sample, much like the Shazam music identification app, but for political ads. According to NPR’s On The Media, when a political ad comes on TV, users can hold up their phones and use this app to listen in and identify who paid for the ad and how much they spent. They can also vote along with other users as to whether ads are positive, fair, fishy or misleading.
And for further commentary, the folks at On the Media have a less technological answer to busting the more fact-challenged advertising this election season: a Mystery Science Theater 3000-themed breakdown of the worst offenders of the election cycle, as selected and commented on by OTM hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield.
If you’ve committed your vote and you want to do more for your candidate of choice, both camps have their own suites of web and smartphone applications to help you do your part.
The Obama campaign in particular seems to be embracing the power of the web for collective action–their apps focus on using mobilized and tech-savvy voters to seek out and mobilize others. Since even before the campaign for the general election formally began, they’ve had a sophisticated online dashboard for phone banking in place that allows anyone with a phone and a computer to log a few hours from home calling on behalf of the campaign.
Along with traditional campaign trappings of calendars and donation tools, their iPhone app uses location data to allow the user to canvass in their area, identifying neighbors that are registered Democrats. While it’s certainly a good tool for would-be door knockers, having a publicly-available map of Democrats all over the country on the App Store raised a few eyebrows of privacy advocates, including those at ProPublica.
Romney’s campaign keeps it much simpler and to the point. Alongside a base app that features his core platform, Romney’s strategy has been to release a series of simpler apps that range from focused to fun to disposable. There was the one-time-use app designed as the first place to hear that Paul Ryan would be his VP nominee, an app dedicated exclusively to Romney’s campaign schedule, and a photo app that essentially serves as an Instagram filter that superimposes “I’m with Mitt” over whatever hyper-patriotic activities in which you and other Romney supporters choose to engage. While less sophisticated, Romney’s suite of apps betrays two things about his campaign strategy: They want to keep things simple for less tech-savvy voters, and they embrace the power of social media to allow supporters to share campaign message and imagery, hence the Instagram-esque app.
While the fact that both major political candidates have embraced technology in their campaigns to the degree that they have should come as no surprise, it’s heartening that web tools for basic democratic functions like voter registration and media consumption have also grown to a level of sophistication unseen in any prior race for the presidency. It should give anyone who lives on the web hope that it’s not just a place for blasting campaign messaging back and forth–the web, both desktop and mobile, is evolving to help create a new generation of information-technology armed citizens.
Photo: In addition to filling out all of the paperwork, TurboVote provides a handy countdown to the more important dates related to absentee voting, regardless of where a voter might live.