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Voter Suppression Wiki: Introductions, Help Wanted, and Strategy

Cross-posted on Oxdown Gazette and Pam’s House Blend

voter suppression wiki logoThe Voter Suppression Wiki is a non-partisan hub of information and action around efforts to suppress votes in the 2008 U.S. elections. For more information, please see our strategy and talking points, Baratunde Thurston’s launch post on Jack and Jill Politics, and my series of posts on Liminal States.  If you’d like to get involved, please introduce yourself, check the help wanted, roll up your sleeves, and jump in!

With only three weeks to go until Election Day on November 4, it’s time for the Voter Suppression Wiki to start shifting to action mode.  Our challenges at this point are pretty typical of nascent activism groups: building a large enough community and getting enough visibility to have an impact, linking up with partners and allies, getting good communications channels in place, and learning to work together effectively.

We’re doing pretty well on all of these fronts, actually: with over 100 people involved we’ve got the core of a community; we’re expecting more press attention later this week; and we’ve had initial discussions with allies like SourceWatch and their Election Protection Wiki, Twitter Vote Report‘s grassroots election-monitoring plan, and CREDO action’s SMS-based Immediate Response Network.  There’s also been a lot of good discussion on the wiki in threads like How can we do better at getting the word out? Still, tempus fugit; so now’s a good time to start moving things forward more quickly.

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Voter suppression: how to do better at getting the word out?

voter suppression wiki logoOne area that we think the Voter Suppression Wiki can potentially add a lot of value is getting the word out more rapidly: about important updates like polling location changes or extended polling times, and to alert the community about deceptive campaign practices.  Today, it can often take over a week for information to make it out broadly once its discovered.  How can we do better?

The deceptive flyers in Philadelphia are an interesting case study.  Their warning that “you’ll be arrested if you try to vote with unpaid traffic fines our outstanding warrants” is a classic,* and Drexel students reported it on September 22.  It was posted to the wiki after Tom Namako’s City Paper article Voter Intimidation Tactics are Afoot at Drexel, on September 24, and the 1-866-OUR-VOTE folks issued an alert Watching out for deceptive campaign practices in Pennsylvania on September 26.  Even so, it was almost another week before Catherine Lucy’s Vote Scam Flyers Target Black Neighborhoods appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News for the first appearance in the mainstream media (MSM) on October 2.

The good news is that word is getting out — the Daily News article was followed by a flurry of attention.  Suppose, though, that the time had been much more compressed … for example, deceptive flyers being posted the weekend before the election.  In that case, the reaction will need to be a lot faster.

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Voter suppression wiki: what to discuss on Meet the Bloggers?

voter suppression wiki logoI’m currently scheduled to be on a Meet the Bloggers‘ discussion of voting rights on October 17, along with Brad Friedman of THE BRAD BLOG and presumably at least one other guest. It’s a great opportunity to get the word out about the Voter Suppression Wiki, and in particular to enlist other bloggers in helping us. What to discuss in my blog post (or posts) before the show?  What to concentrate on during the 30 precious minutes of airtime?  Where to focus energy for follow discussions?

I set up a page on the wiki to sketch my thinking — and even more importantly, to get others ideas. Feedback welcome, there or here!

Brad’s a voting rights expert, and so if I get a chance I’d rather focus on the activism and social computing aspects of our campaign. This ties in both with my recent experiences and my multi-year research agenda of computer science as a social science — and I think will be interesting in general for the Meet the Bloggers audience, because it’s not something I’ve seen discussed there before.

Here are some very quick initial thoughts on the topics I could potentially cover:

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TWO wikis, saving democracy?

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Within an hour after the announcement of the Voter Protection Wiki, we were tipped off that there’s another voting rights wiki in town, and it’s a doozy.  And sure enough, today SourceWatch is announcing the Election Protection wiki.* From their announcement:

Recent presidential elections were marred by controversies and disputes. Scores of individuals and organizations have been working to investigate and reform US elections, issuing reports and information on topics such as electronic voting machines, voter suppression campaigns and student voting rights. However, this information is spread across many different websites, news sources and databases. The Election Protection Wiki seeks to provide a single web portal for accessing this disparate information. Its information is non-partisan and factual; anyone of any political persuasion will be able to both read from and write to the wiki to help us all protect every American’s right to vote.

SourceWatch is best known for Congresspedia and their “Superdelegate Transparency Project”; they’ve got experience, a community, paid staff, and excellent connections with politicians and non-profits in DC and all over the country.  It’s a great thing for American democracy.

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Reflections: what I learned during my summer vacation

Apologies to my friends and relatives for being out of touch this summer….

Rather than going to the beach, I instead hung out in a variety of exotic online locales: my.barackobama.com, Wetpaint, Facebook, and the blogosphere (especially OpenLeft, Shakesville, Pam’s House Blend, and Jack and Jill Politics).  It was kind of a working vacation, engaging in and observing activism projects while thinking about the chapter on social network activism for Tales from the Net.   With the equinox and fall upon us, it seems like a good time to take stock.

Get FISA Right logoGet FISA Right‘s start as a group of Senator Obama’s supporters using my.barackobama.com (myBO) to put pressure on him, and then evolving to a “50-state strategy”, really highlights the power of social network-based movements.  We quickly became the largest group on myBO, and then Obama replied to our open letter* giving more details about his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendment than he had discussed with the press.  Even though he didn’t change his position, sometimes all you can say is “w00t w00t!”

At that point, we cracked the mainstream media (MSM) in a big way: The NY Times!  Time! Meet the Press!  And I did my part too: on Radio Nation’s Air America, mentions in a bunch of articles including the Washington Post and Wired, a brief snippet on CNN … fifteen seconds of fame 🙂

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A wiki, saving democracy?

But what about the votes that don’t count? What about the systematic attempts to erect barriers between voters and the ballot box? What about voter suppression?

In order to educate, document and mobilize action, I’m excited to introduce the Voter Suppression Wiki.

— Baratunde Thurston, Announcing The Launch Of The Voter Suppression Wiki – Learn, Report, Act on Jack and Jill Politics

In May, I was on a panel on e-Deceptive campaign practices at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, and all the panelists agreed that with partisan feelings high and the polls likely to be close, this election would be particularly nasty from a voting rights perspective. Sure enough, potential issues are already cropping up: absentee ballot applications sent to voters with the wrong return addresses, a lawsuit in Wisconsin likely to cause incredibly-long lines at the polls, another suit in Ohio attempting to prevent people from voting when they register, misleading warnings from county officials in Virginia with the apparent purpose of discouraging college students from registering, and apparent plans to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters in Michigan that’s sparked a lawsuit from the Obama campaign.   And it’s only September!

Many forms of voter suppression* revolve around voter registration: voter caging and other ways of purging legitimate voters from databases, discouraging or preventing people from registering.  Others focus on preventing registered voters from actually voting: spreading false information about polling places, not providing enough ballots, intimidating rumors such as “you’ll be arrested if you have any outstanding parking tickets,” and poll workers not respecting voters’ rights.

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