Election protection: Techville and Reality City

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Welcome to those who have gotten here via my appearance on Meet the Bloggers! The 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 (most of which are cross-posted on Pam’s House Blend and Oxdown Gazette).  If you’d like to get involved, please introduce yourself, check the help wanted, roll up your sleeves, and jump in!

If you’re hear to watch me, Brad Friedman and James Rucker on Meet the Bloggers, the video is at the end of the post.

If you’d like to help fight voter suppression, please get involved!

One of the things we’ve talked a lot about with the Voter Suppression Wiki is the importance of looking at bridging the gap from the online to the offline community.  A good way of understanding this is by imagining two congressional districts: Techville and Reality City.

Techville is relatively affluent, mostly-white, and as the name implies, a high-tech hotbed.  “Everybody” uses Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn, and a whole bunch of cool web 2.0 thingies I’ve never heard of — as my brother Gregory K would say, they’re pretty well connected.  Their local election board is well-funded and very proactive; they’ve got a great training program for election-day pollworkers, and many local high-tech companies encourage their employees to take the day off to volunteer.

Reality City, by contrast, is poorer, with a lot of minorities and Spanish speakers, and several large retirement communities.  It’s on the “wrong side of the digital divide”, so while there are some highly-wired residents  (especially students), computer usage in general is low.  Just like everywhere else in America, people are fired up about the election, and so registration has surged.  Unfortunately, there’s no money, so there aren’t enough voting machines to go around; and they haven’t been able to hire enough staff to validate all the registrations or find enough volunteers for election day.

Voter suppression is almost certainly likely to be more of a problem in Reality City than Techville; and so from an election protection perspective, that’s where we’d like to focus our efforts.  In practice, though, an online focus risks doing exactly the opposite.

It starts with getting the word out and finding people to get involved.  In Techville, a lot of people read techPresident, Wired, and the YouTube blog and watch Meet the Bloggers regularly — so they already know about the grassroots election protection movement and are finding ways to get involved.  How to get the word out equivalently in Reality City?

It’s not like this is an impossible problem, and in fact it’s something that we’ve kept in mind with the Voter Suppression Wiki, from the initial launch through our ongoing community planning.  Baratunde’s launch post was on Jack and Jill Politics, and I cross-posted in Pam’s House Blend — two top-ten blogs in the black blogosphere.  Of course, this doesn’t directly reach people who aren’t online; but it is likely to catch some people’s attention, and lays the groundwork for outreach to community newspapers, radio stations, and hubs like community technology centers.  We’re also talking with groups like Color of Change who have strong networks in the Reality Cities across the country, and brainstorming ways to reach out to highly-connected groups like college students within the community and enlist them as contact points.   Our community media strategy page has some additional thinking in this area.

The important thing to notice is that none of this “just happens”.  If you don’t spend a lot of effort thinking about how to reach people in Reality City, you’ll come up with talking to folks in Techville.

A couple of interesting election monitoring projects highlight some of the complexities.  Wired’s Report your issue here and the Twitter Vote Report give a couple of different ways for people to self-report any issues they run into during voting.  The possibilities here are exciting: if we can use these results to get a live “heat map” of where problems are on election day, it’ll be a real help to election officials, campaigns, non-partisan organizations — and to voters as well.

A caveat, though: there are almost certainly much higher percentage of Wired readers and Twitter users in Techville, so it’s much easier to imagine things getting to critical mass there.  If that’s all that happens, it’s not clear whether it’ll have a significant impact on voter suppression.  In the grand scheme of things, Techville’s not where the biggest problems are likely to occur.

In fact, depending on what information is reported, these kinds of monitoring projects could give a misleading impression.  If 100 times more people are participating in Techville than in Reality City, then the data’s likely to show more reported incidents in Techville no matter what the reality is.  From a statistical analysis perspective, there’s a straightforward way to mitigate this: report successes as well as failures and use the ratio of success to failures as the indication of likely problems.   Unfortunately, Wired — at least their initial announcement — only asks for problems to be reported.  Sorry, Reality City.

We spent some time on the last Twitter Vote Report (TVR) phone call thinking about how to involve people in the communities most at risk for voter suppression.  One of the very appealing things about using Twitter — or any phone-based reporting mechanism — is that cellphones are much more pervasive, even in at-risk communities, than computers.  True, most cellphone users aren’t on Twitter, but maybe there are ways around it.  For example:

  • Could TVR set up a “shared” Twitter account that anybody could use to text this information in on election day?  That’s not how Twitter usually operates, but maybe they’d be willing to work with us to make it happen — other companies like Google (or for that matter my consulting client Coverity and their arch-rival Fortify) routinely helping out with election protection activities as part of being good corporate citizens, and Twitter’s probably no exception.  At the very least, it certainly seems worth asking.
  • Getting Twitter-enabled requires a signup, which is a bit of a hassle (especially if you don’t own a computer) but once you’re signed up it’s as easy to use as texting.  Could TVR partner with community technology centers, internet cafes, libraries, and maybe even schools — in other words, places where there are computers and knowledgeable people — and help people in Reality City sign up for Twitter *before* the election?  Could there be volunteers near polling sites on election day for those who want to sign up on the spot?
  • Or how about enlisting the Reality City residents who are already highly-connected as election observers, asking them to report others’ experiences?  This would be a great way for students to get involved, whether or not they’re legal voters.  To make this work TVR would need to provide some basic training material (which should be easy enough) and then partner with groups like Rock the Vote, Future Majority, and Color of Change who are likely to be able to reach some highly-connected people in Reality City — and perhaps once again look to community technology centers.

It’s hard to know whether any of these things will happen … there’s a lot to do in just 17 days between now and the election, and as always, a lot depends on how many people get involved.  Once again, it won’t just happen by default.  Still, the enouraging thing is that once you start to think about things from Reality City’s perspectives, there are some straightforward approaches that can make a big difference.

From the Voter Suppression Wiki’s perspective, I think our biggest impact can be with Reality City and other marginalized communities across the US.  To start with, we are thinking about them; in fact, we’re treating them as a high-priority goal.  The diversity of our initial group of users means that lots of good ideas are coming forward — and they’ve got the connections to make it happen.  And I think our inclusive nature, cool technology, and respect for the power and technology prowess of youth means gives us a shot at attracting a lot of the heavily-connected online hubs of Reality City … to the Voter Suppression Wiki and hopefully other election protection projects as well.

Will that be enough to get us out of the Techville ghetto and into the other 99% of the US?  We shall see ….


Video for Meet the Bloggers: