February 1, 2009

The iPhone Meets Public Elections: Reinventing the Future of Voter Services

IN THE near future most people will carry an iPhone-like device rather than an old fashioned cell phone. The world of information will be at their fingertips wherever they are. Restaurant reviews, maps, conversations, books, games and a plethora of information will be available, all with the push of a finger. But that information will not be limited to consumer information. If the 2008 presidential campaign is any indication, we should have "iPhone elections" by the 2012 presidential cycle.

In the 2008 election there were plenty of iPhone political applications. Some like Chimp Software's Poll Tracker gave polling information while others like Cascade Software provided users with a daily snapshot of the presidential race. There were over 30 iPhone applications aimed at the Obama and McCain contest. And the political parties were represented with iRepublican and iDemocrat. Some of the other political programs available included:
  • The Top Choice
  • Congress
  • Polis
  • Campaign Trail
  • Electoral 08

And of course everyone could tune in to YouTube's Presidential Election Channel which had around 143,000 election related videos. Google got into the act. "It's hard to believe that in 2008, information so important to U.S. citizens and the democratic progress isn't well organized on the Web," said the blog entry posted by J.L. Needham, a member of Google's pubic sector content partnerships department. "To solve this problem, we've related our U.S. Voter Info site, an effort to simplify and centralize voting locations and registration information."

Looking ahead to 2012, there definitely will be even more election related content on the iPhone. The difference, however, will be that in addition to the "political content and applications," voters will also enjoy "official" election content and applications. Those might include voter registration applications, campaign reports, vote-by mail applications, poll worker information, election results and official candidate and ballot measure information.

Educating citizens is an important aspect of our election process and the move toward more election services on mobile devices is a natural. Providing official election material is a powerful tool and gives the voters control over their own education. It allows them to access their device when it's convenient and study the voter information they want. And any strategy that is implemented must by default allow for easy communications between the voter and Registrar, Registrar and voter and voter to voter.

In 1996 Bill Gates in "The Road Ahead" said, "Each media advance has had a substantial affect on how people and governments interact. The printing press and, later, mass-circulation newspapers changed the nature of political debate. Radio and then television allowed government leaders to talk directly and intimately with the populace. Similarly, the information highway will have its own influence on politics. For the first time politicians will be able to see immediate representative surveys of public opinion. Voters will be able to cast their ballot from home on their wallet PCs with less risk and miscounts or fraud. The implications for government may be as great as they are for industry."

Some of what Mr. Gates said might very well make us smile today. But as the Obama campaign proved, organizing, fundraising and connecting with voters has now reached a different level. In fact, some have said that Barack Obama won the presidency by converting everyday people (some 13 million) into empowered volunteers, donors and advocates through social networks, e-mail advocacy, text messaging and online video.

It's time to apply those same strategies to the conduct of public elections.

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