Can Tech Help Get Out the Vote in a Chaotic Election?

 

Success in getting out the vote — motivating potential voters to register and then participate in mail-in or in-person voting — acts as the canary in the coal mine for American democracy. Voting is something that the least powerful and most marginalized groups in U.S. society don’t do nearly as often as their wealthy and more privileged counterparts. Dambisa Moyo, who writes about democracy, pointed out in a New York Times piece last year that “nearly half the people who don’t vote [in the United States] have family incomes below $30,000, and just 19 percent of likely voters come from low-income families. So it’s hardly surprising that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded the United States from a ‘full democracy’ to a ‘flawed democracy’ in 2017, based on diminished voter engagement and confidence in the democratic process.”

So with a consensus that there’s a lot at stake in the 2020 elections, you’d think voter turnout would be at an all-time high. But that thinking doesn’t take Covid-19 or true voter suppression efforts into account. Some people are (justifiably) afraid to go out, while others are nefariously discouraged from voting. And this time around — in 2020 — fighting these trends won’t be easy. Not only are we experiencing a never-ending pandemic, it’s also impossible even under the best circumstances to keep track of all the illegitimate mechanisms some states are using to keep people from voting. 

In normal circumstances, in-person interactions are the key to almost all effective political engagement, especially where motivating people from scratch is concerned; but, as has been established, these are not normal times. We might be able to maintain relationships remotely, but starting those relationships is much more difficult as long as constituents, potential voters, donors and/or activists must remain at technological arm’s length. Though some candidate and voter drives are taking place in-person, these events carry a COVID-19 stigma and, even in safe conditions, most people will not show up to things they don’t have to show up to. With the election only a handful of days away, technology is all we really have. 

Getting out the vote requires two elements: people need access, and they need enthusiasm. One can explain access remotely but not provide it. And one can transmit enthusiasm, but one better be darn good at it. Tech companies, social media platforms, and app makers are all doing their best. Some companies are providing tools that bolster existing GOTV efforts by connecting campaigns and organizations with potential voters. Accurate Append, for example, provides data append, phone append and email append services that help facilitate the important work of getting out the vote. 

Some tech companies are doing GOTV work themselves. Several platform and content creators in the greater Los Angeles area “are leveraging their influence to encourage voting by Gen Z and millennial audiences as registration deadlines approach.” These companies and innovators are creating voting guides and tools that they hope will “motivate first-time voters to cast a ballot.” Most GOTV tech apps already begin with the premise that in-person interactions are important, and so a handful of them seem to be making an effort to replicate those interactions, either through peer-to-peer GOTV reminders and canvassing, or through widespread campaigning on the availability of the tech. On that note, Snapchat had registered a million voters by October 1 of this year, and over 60% of those users were between the ages of 18 and 24. 

Why is the 18 to 24 cohort important? Age and adaptability are key factors in the tech transition. Since the last presidential election in 2016, over 15 million people have turned 18, and are thus eligible to vote for the first time. Even a fraction of that number can swing state and local races. In fact — as we saw in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — a few tens of thousands of people voting or not voting can even swing the electoral college for a presidential contender. 

Events (which can be done in a fun way online, requiring some planning) are still important in building GOTV enthusiasm. Recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, student groups hosted a GOTV Fest focused on motivating communities of color to vote. 1000 people attended online, thanks to the efforts of MITVote, the Asian American Initiative, Latino Cultural Center, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Chinese Students Club, the South Asian Association of Students and the Black Students’ Union. It was done through Zoom. 

The sweet spot would be finding a way to utilize the spirit of deep canvassing in the service of mobilizing first-time voters. It’s already been used (and tested by research) in the context of deliberation designed to increase tolerance and decrease bigotry. That research tried to identify “the secret ingredient that makes deep canvassing work” and examined the role of actual deep communication with people in Tennessee, Central California, and Southern California, all prior to the 2018 elections. These are places where cultural worlds collide, including places with strong nativist and conservative tendencies running smack into the reality of ICE raids and immigrant workers. 

Of course, perhaps the reason tech companies aren’t doing more to get out the vote is that those companies themselves aren’t particularly good at encouraging their own workers to vote. This seems to be the case with Amazon, a company purporting to have progressive values. Currently, thousands of tech employees at Amazon recently “signed a petition calling for the e-commerce giant to provide paid time off to all of its employees to vote.” That’s 1.3 million workers (if you include both Amazon and Amazon-owned Whole Foods) total who, if eligible, would benefit from this policy and the resulting accessibility of voting. That’s not a small number. 

The petition calls for eight hours of paid leave, and if that seems like too much, consider that some people are waiting in line for longer than that just to be able to vote early. Additionally, the eight hours can be spread out — time to register, time to volunteer, and time to vote. That is a sweet package, and Amazon should grant it. 

Technology’s attempt to keep up with democracy’s demands has always been tough, but it’s been made tougher because people are rightly afraid of too much social interaction and because the government currently displays no support for voting rights. Thankfully, people step up when institutions fail; and the tech sector — increasingly decentralized and facilitative of grassroots activism — has stepped up impressively.