🏞📲 What Tech Can Do For Voting
Platforms are getting out the vote. Here's what they're missing.
Welcome back to Civic Signals, where vote by mail meets inbox zero. From now through the November election, we’re running Holding it Together, a pop-up miniseries that looks at the intersection of digital spaces and democracy. As platforms like Twitter and Facebook announce that they’ll be temporarily suspending various features of their platforms in the name of protecting democracy, we want to think about some constructive changes our digital spaces could make to build a stronger, more engaged public. This week, we look at what the various tech platforms have done to increase voter registration, and talk to Sam Novey of the National Conference on Citizenship about how they could do it better.
Voting doesn’t happen in isolation. To increase participation, create local leadership opportunities
Use metrics to measure local leadership development
Design with community leaders at the center—they have resources you don’t have
The pandemic hit voter registration hard
New voter registration in America has plummeted since the start of the pandemic—a study from the Brennan Center for Justice shows that it’s declined by an average of 38% in 17 of the 21 states analyzed. It makes sense: Voter registration takes place on college campuses (which saw widespread closures due to COVID), at public events like festivals (ditto), and at the DMV (same). Add in the fact that registering to vote is already more challenging in America than in many countries (hello, Canada), and we’re looking at a participation crisis. As one Texas organization put it, "This is a very difficult state to register in on a good day. We are now on the worst day."
Enter the tech platforms
While it’s traditional for social networks to make some kind of effort to get out the vote, this year has seen an unprecedented push to get voters registered. Snapchat, which promoted voter registration with a tool and original content from celebrities including former president Barack Obama, has registered at least 1 million voters, more than twice the 450,000+ voters they registered during the 2018 midterms. Facebook went a step further, registering voters but also signing up poll workers during a widely publicized recruitment drive. Twitter partnered with Turbovote to remind every user to register or check their registration. Even TikTok joined in...sort of...by launching a US elections guide with voter registration information less than a week before many states’ registration deadlines.
In a year when everyone’s hanging out online, you could argue that platforms have a civic responsibility to get out the vote. We’re used to seeing voter registration tables outside the mall—why wouldn’t our online malls do the same thing? So the fact that so many social media platforms have invested time and energy into registering voters this year is really good news. But is there more that they can do?
Arguing that the current efforts don’t go far enough, Charlie Warzel published a list of other steps major platforms could take to protect democracy:
Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and other browser builders could make useful voting information and validated updates from secretary of state websites the default home page in their browsers. Facebook’s election dashboard could replace users’ home screen, forcing users to click away from it to engage with standard news feeds or groups and pages. As returns come in on election night, that crucial internet real estate could be prominently displayed all night with only validated election results, offering a sober look at “What we know” before users have a chance to enter the chaotic frenzy of their algorithmic feeds.
Sam Novey, Director of the Full Participation Program at the National Conference on Citizenship (which also serves as a fiscal sponsor of Civic Signals), said he’s happy to see platforms stepping up to increase voter participation. “Absolutely, for the love of God, it’s the very least they can do!” he said. “You’ve got a ton of eyeballs every day; pull the voter registration lever!” But he added that the current efforts miss that democracy is not just about voting, but about participation.
To get out the vote, recruit leaders
“Voting is not something you do in isolation,” said Novey. One goal of voter registration drives is to support local leaders coming into full participation in their communities. That’s harder to do on a massive tech platform, where voter registration efforts might help people vote, but won’t grow the kind of local leaders every functioning democracy needs. “To get the democracy we want,” Novey said, “we’re going to have to provide really rich local leadership opportunities.”
There are a lot of ways digital spaces could encourage civic leadership. Novey suggested that platforms create metrics to measure local leadership development. “What would it mean for Facebook to say, we recruited 10,000 people to create a democracy action plan for their community?”
As a model, Novey offered Students Learn, Students Vote, which has developed a detailed rubric that measures not only whether there is a community plan to vote, but how strong that plan is. (Students Learn, Students Vote is also fiscally sponsored by NCoC.) Civic tech leaders and voter participation experts could partner with social platforms to help people create similar plans on the community level, applying the best offline voter registration practices to online voter registration drives.
In general, Novey feels tech needs to think at the community level. “If I had to critique a lot of my civic tech partners, I think we don’t design enough for local leaders; there’s a lot of energy appropriately put on creating the best possible experience for voters, but not enough for local leaders like the PTA or the social action committee at church.” Novey mentioned the Civic Signals Library Design Sprint as an example of the kind of approach that might also be productive for designers looking to engage communities around voting. “Librarians are a great example of the kinds of local leaders we want to be serving. These people have so many resources and we leave them out—if we started designing with those folks at the center, I think a lot more would be possible.”
There’s a lot we can do digitally
Finally, Novey stressed that community leaders are still making creative use of digital spaces, as well as older communications technology like...yes...the post office. Party At The Mailbox is a project from NCoC and Black Girls Vote that’s designed to turn the experience of voting into something celebratory. It’s a block party at your mailbox.
Currently in Baltimore, Detroit, and Philadelphia, Party At The Mailbox wants to spread the message that voting is a celebration, not a chore—and if vote by mail feels inescapably analog, the project itself is built for digital engagement. Participants receive boxes celebrating local talent, with t-shirts and posters from local artists and local snacks like crab chips. In addition to including guidance on voting, the boxes contain everything participants need to create memorable, celebratory “I voted” posts on social media. With COVID making large gatherings unsafe, Party At The Mailbox has rallied voters across digital spaces, even partnering with a local performance art group to create a YouTube video that highlights ballot drop box locations in Baltimore.
During the primaries, Party At The Mailbox hosted an election night Zoom party with live DJs that was attended by 10,000 people. “There’s something about coming in from our homes that actually makes it more intimate,” said Novey. “When we’re creative and focused on the type of connection we want to have and can be agnostic about how we get there, we can still get there, even during the pandemic.”
We’ve got this
It’s this positive energy that’s key to mobilizing voters, Novey emphasized. He said the most effective messaging for individuals hoping to encourage their networks to vote on social media is to act really excited about voting—and that showing yourself voting on social media can be an effective tool to increase participation. “People need to see that people like them are voting too,” said Novey. He added: “People don’t need any more negative energy in their lives.”
One Thing We’re Thinking About This Week
Building the World We Deserve is a new report from the Siegel Family Endowment that breaks infrastructure into three categories—physical, digital, and social—and argues that we need a multidimensional approach that acknowledges their interdependence. It’s a rallying cry that calls for a New Deal-style investment in digital public infrastructure that creates more resilient and equitable results for everyone. There’s a lot to think and talk about in this piece—share your thoughts in the comments below!
Did you catch our Co-Director Eli Pariser’s essay in WIRED? Eli sets out the case for online parks—digital spaces that bring people together instead of tearing them apart. Eli writes that “Fixing our ability to connect and build healthy communities at scale is arguably an Apollo mission for this generation,” and stresses that it can’t happen unless a diverse group of technologists, designers, and thinkers comes together to build a better tomorrow.
So if you know someone who might be interested in joining our community, why not share this newsletter with them? We have some exciting announcements coming very soon.
Choreographing our vote by mail dance video,
The Civic Signals Team
Illustration by Josh Kramer
🏞📲 Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.