April 21, 2014

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Information Facilitating Participation in Elections Must Be Readily Available – Principle #10 for Fostering Civic Engagement Through Digital Technologies

For the final installment of my series of blog posts outlining ten principles that governments and local communities should consider when evaluating whether they are using digital technology effectively to facilitate civic engagement, I will discuss the issue that goes to the core of democracy in our country – the public having access to information about elections. The information that facilitates participation in elections comes from a variety of sources, including local governments ensuring that people are easily able to register to vote, politicians using technology for conversations with the public during campaigns, and members of the public using e-mail, blogs and social media to discuss the candidates’ promises.

Technology as a tool for civic engagement has become an increasingly critical aspect of politics, particularly in urban areas. That’s because one of the factors that has affected political discourse, especially in urban areas – race – is diminishing in salience with the public. In a recent NY Times Op-ed, Thomas Edsall asked the question, “What if Race No Longer Matters in City Politics?” He noted the absence of race as a divisive factor in recent elections in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Instead, he argued that income and class shaped the mayoral contests in Boston and New York.

As cities move away from racial politics, the vacuum is being filled, at least in part, by both citizens and politicians focusing on lifestyle issues. Right now, arguably there is nothing that reflects people’s lifestyles more than the wireless devices they carry and the content they choose to consume and share through those devices. And some of that content relates to civic engagement. For example, according to a 2013 Pew study, 67% of all 18-24 year olds engaged in some social network-related political activity in the 12 months preceding the survey. Overall, 39% of adults use social media sites for political or civic activities.

Given that citizens are moving their political activities on-line, it is important that state governments make it easier for people to participate in the political process by making on-line voter registration available. Approximately 15 states currently allow on-line voter registration, while approximately 5 more have passed legislation permitting on-line registration. In addition to added convenience, according to the state of Arizona, paper registration costs 83 cents per registration while each on-line registration costs only 3 cents. To be beneficial for the public though, on-line registration must be secure. CITP Fellow J. Alex Halderman, in an interview with the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier in 2013 recommended, “ensuring that security experts are consulted during design [of an on-line registration system], adequate security testing is undertaken before the system goes live, and ongoing monitoring for threat detection efforts [takes place] while the system is being operated.”

In a recent article in Politico, Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu suggests that voter participation in Congressional primary elections is so low because of the “convenience gap” between voting and many other modern tasks and proposes increasing participation by moving voting on-line. I disagree with Mr. Wu’s solution partially because I think technology can close the “convenience gap” that makes voting seem burdensome by keeping people connected regularly to the civic and political decision-making process. Since people have the ability through digital technology to be extremely selective about the information they choose to consume, governments and political candidates need to use more targeted methods to reach each constituent with information that’s uniquely important to that person. For example, a person who is registered for Capital Bikeshare – the bike sharing service in the Washington, DC metro area – could register to receive text message alerts about community meetings on bike lanes and transportation policy generally. If a particular series of issues is closely tied to a person’s lifestyle and interests, I think that will drive participation. There will be no need to move to on-line voting now, before the security concerns can be addressed.

People who are invested in their local communities need to continue to experiment with ways to boost civic engagement. In advance of a special election for the City Council in Washington, DC this Spring, three popular local bloggers partnered on the “Let’s Choose DC” website, which posed one question per week to all of the eligible candidates. Candidates provided longer than a sound bite answers to questions about topics such as education, crime, and affordable housing. Readers had the opportunity to vote on the responses. While turnout in the special election was disappointingly low – only 11.32% – participation still improved compared to a 2011 special election that came in at 10.30%. The more that journalists, local businesses, civic activists and government officials recognize the economic and social value of assisting citizens in using technology as a tool for building communities that reflect their members’ needs and aspirations, the stronger local communities will become.

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