Last month, I was a poll watcher for the mayoral primary in Washington, DC. My duties were to monitor several polling places to confirm that each Precinct Captain was ensuring that the City’s election laws were being followed on site; in particular, that everyone who believed that they were qualified to vote was able to do so, even if through a provisional ballot. While, thankfully, I did not witness any violations of DC law, I also did not see many voters. The turnout for the election was the lowest since 1974, the beginning of home rule in the District of Columbia. Only 27% of registered voters cast ballots.
Between conversations with friends and neighbors and reading post-mortems on the election, anecdotal evidence abounds as to why turnout was so low.
Maybe people opted not to vote out of disgust with the current political climate in the city after witnessing a series of Federal investigations and indictments of local elected officials and campaign staff. Maybe switching the primary from its customary Fall date to early April confused voters and many did not realize Election Day was April 1st. Maybe none of the candidates were truly inspiring, so voters chose not to educate themselves about their choices. I spoke to an acquaintance soon after Election Day who told me that he had not voted because, even though he knew he would be out of town on Election Day, he did not find time to vote early or get an absentee ballot. Yet, on Election Day, I met a young man who was voting despite still suffering significant after effects from being shot in the head twice.
Into this complicated environment comes an exciting new start-up – Brigade Media. Napster co-founder and billionaire Sean Parker has raised a $9.3 million round of funding for his new company, which seeks to boost the level of civic engagement, including voting, among U.S. residents. A VentureBeat article says that Brigade Media will address issues at the Federal, state and local levels. An article in Politico suggests that “[t]he company will focus on underlying societal problems that make it difficult for citizens to engage in government.”
If Brigade Media is able to address some of the underlying barriers to political participation in the U.S., it has the potential to be an extremely influential company. For me, its success would be defined, at least in terms of social impact, by expanding the number of people who vote and otherwise participate in the political process and by amplifying the voices, between election days, of people who currently vote.
According to some 2013 Pew research, the greatest barriers to civic participation – and, also, home broadband adoption – are income and education. People who live in higher income households and who have attended or graduated from college are consistently more likely than people with lower incomes or education levels to take part in many online and offline civic behaviors, including: (1) Working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in one’s community; (2) Attending a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs; (3) Being an active member of a group that tries to influence public policy or government; (4) Attending a political rally or speech; (5) Working or volunteering for a political party or candidate; (6) Contacting a government official about an important issue, either online or offline; (7) Signing a petition, either digitally or on paper; and (8) Commenting on a news story or blog post online.
There is some evidence that neighborhoods in Washington, DC with higher incomes and greater college graduation rates saw greater levels of participation in the April primary election. For example, in the zip code containing Precinct 120, where the 15% voter turnout was approximately 18% less than turnout for the 2010 mayoral primary, the median household income is below the Washington, DC average, the unemployment percentage is above average, and percentage of the population with a college degree is significantly below average for the City, according to city-data.com. In contrast, according to the same website, in the zip code housing precinct 52, voter turnout actually increased between 2010 and 2014 from approximately 49% to approximately 50%, while household income is significantly above the Washington, DC average, unemployment is significantly below average, and the percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher is above average for Washington, DC.
Brigade Media and other organizations certainly can affect civic participation both by better utilizing existing technology and developing new applications, even if voter turnout will always depend at least to some degree on the particular candidates running for office and the political climate at the time of the election. Developing tools that are tailored to both desktop and mobile devices will be critical, given the political participation and broadband adoption disparities across different demographic groups. While home broadband connections are still very important for researching civic issues and engaging in on-line political organizing, identifying ways to foster more meaningful political participation through mobile devices will reap the greatest dividends. I can envision new applications, specifically created for politics, which allow people to take advantage of two of the best aspects of smartphone ownership – short messaging and photo tools – to enable new ways of organizing which are less reliant on a desktop platform. I can also imagine a new fundraising application that allows one person to solicit and bundle numerous small contributions also without having to use a dedicated desktop application. Easing ongoing access to participation in the political process should make people feel more invested in their communities and ultimately more likely to participate on Election Day. It is welcome news when any new organization, for-profit or non-profit, takes on this important mission.