Bring the Ballot into the 21st Century, and Your Smartphone into the Ballot Box

BySarah Lugaric

Voting is far too old school. The one comprehensive communication I received about the upcoming election arrived at my doorstep resembling a phonebook: 100-plus-pages of grey recycled newsprint filled with information on every candidate and measure on my ballot. I set mine aside weeks ago to read before the election, and like millions of Americans, I never will.

I’m not lazy, nor am I uninterested in democratic elections. I’m a college-educated business owner, a citizen involved in my community, a mother of school-age children, and I have voted in every election since becoming eligible. But if something takes more than 10 minutes to read, I’m likely to be distracted by an incoming text, a question from a co-worker, or a tug on my sleeve from an antsy child with a more immediate need.

Even those with ample free time are unlikely to read through densely-worded info booklets. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan declared "the medium is the message" nearly 50 years ago, a notion that today is simply fact: our increased demand for digital, real time, and interactive messaging has decreased our tolerance for anything but.

So how do we get educated to vote our ballots on November 6th?

The strategy most of us employ seems to be osmosis. We hope that through some combination of news stories, debates, campaign commercials, articles, flyers, friends’ Facebook postings, and casual conversations, we will absorb enough solid information to make good decisions at the ballot box. But if that’s true, why do so many of us feel a vague sense of unease when we step into the voting box, embarrassed to be left guessing at this ballot measure or that candidate?

More often than many care to admit, voters are ill-informed and under-prepared to vote their full ballots. Not because they don’t care, but because there is a lack of organized and easy-to-use information on down-the-ballot issues.

Voter-registration organizations like Rock the Vote and HeadCount have made great strides in registering voters the last 10 years by optimizing the use of digital and social media – tactics shown to increase voter turnout by a factor of four. What would it look like to apply such techniques to voter education?

Let’s start by bringing the ballot into the 21st century.

We may not be able to vote online yet, but with two-thirds of voters using the internet as their primary information source on candidates and ballots, it’s time for the ballot to go digital.  PollVault’s recently launched “See Your Ballot” web app bridges this gap by providing a mobile device ready, digital, interactive version of your federal and state ballot with photos, information links, and social discussion.

As sites like PolicyMic have shown, social media and crowdsourcing are powerful tools for democratizing the news and giving people a say in who achieves punditry status. PollVault applies this same approach for ballot advice, allowing voters to tap into the wisdom of their friends and family along with over 400 other organizations and counting, like the Sierra Club, the NRA, and NPR. It’s as if voters were given a tool to crowdsource their very own election CliffsNotes and carry it on their mobile phones into the voting booth on Election Day.

To be sure, digital media is not a panacea for all of our voter education challenges. There is ample opportunity for the propagation of misinformation on social media, as well as the dominance of deep-pocketed interests (just as there is with traditional media). Privacy can be a concern, too. But digital information’s reach into our on-the-go busy lives is here to stay.

No other communication channel is as accessible to as large a number or diverse a range of voices: digital and social media show equally high utilization rates across racial and ethnic groups. Offline media almost always makes its way into online conversations, where ideas are dissected and further explored. And we’ve grown increasingly comfortable sharing personal information online, given the presence of sufficient security options.

If confusion and information outages are a major source of political disengagement, the country that created Apple, Microsoft, Google and Twitter surely can find a way to apply digital technology to better educate voters. Voter education should be presented in the communication codes, styles and channels that increasingly form an influential part of our everyday lives.