Mexicans report votes (and nonvotes) with SMS

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jun 19, 2009

On July 5th, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect new members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. Two Mexican initiatives, Cuidemos El Voto and Anulo Mi Voto, are using SMS in different ways to make people's voices heard in what they fear will be a less-than-democratic election.

Cuidamos El Voto

By simply sending a text message, citizens will be able to report any voting irregularities or other problems.  But Oscar Salazar hopes that Cuidemos El Voto, the vote monitoring system, doesn't receive too many texts.

"We really hope that the number of incidents is low, this will mean Mexican democracy is for real," wrote Salazar in an email interview with MobileActive, who is coordinating the project. "However, if this is not the case, we want to provide NGOs and common citizens with the tools to enforce this process."

Cuidemos El Voto is the latest implementation of Ushahidi, a project that uses crowdsourcing to track incident reports.  Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, was first used during the Kenyan election in December 2008, and has also been used in South Africa, India, Gaza, Lebanon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Ushahidi has also been used to track reports of swine flu cases worldwide.  Users can submit reports, either by Web, SMS, or Twitter, that are then entered into the Ushahidi database and displayed on a map.  Cuidemos El Voto, the Mexican version, will be used in the time leading up to the July election.

NGOs and election monitoring groups plan to use Cuidemos El Voto, said Salazar, who is also co-founder and CEO of eFlyer, a Mexican startup that specializes in mobile. EFlyer is sponsoring the technology for Cuidemos El Voto as part of a social responsibility initiative, and Salazar is one of six people involved with the project.

So far, most of the reports have come from media sources or the web form, and describe vote buying, reports of violence against candidates and reports of government officials who promise benefits from social programs in exchange for voting for a particular candidate or party. Reports from SMS or Twitter are likely to come on July 5, the day of the election, Salazar said. 

The Mexican version, which is the first time that Ushahidi has been translated into Spanish, is slightly different than other iterations of Ushahidi because it uses local SMS gateway support. "Clickatell in Mexico only delivers 60% of the SMS, and we also considered that based on the number of potential observers Frontline SMS could have bandwidth problems," wrote Salazar. The system also includes a database of four digit codes, used by the Federal Election Institute, for all election locations, which will be used to geo-tag the locations of reports on the map. "We want to reduce the error when geo-tagging and we know that most errors come from mistyped addresses on the SMS," wrote Salazar.

After the election, the team will publish the API and data that is collected so that it can be used for future research.  MIT's Center for Future Civic Media will also be using the database for research. "We want to create a public database where people can see a snapshot of the real Mexican democratic process," wrote Salazar.

Anulo Mi Voto

Some Mexicans think the political situation in their country has gotten so bad that the candidates are not even worth a vote.  "A lot of people feel that the candidates don't represent them in any way and the level of corruption is ridiculous," said an organizer of Anulo Mi Voto, an intitiave that is asking people to annul their vote in the upcoming election. The organizer asked not to be named because she's a foreigner and not allowed to participate in any political movements under Mexican law. 

Anulo Mi Voto is part of a larger network of groups, including "vota en blanco," that has largley spread through blogs and YouTube.  Major political figures including Dulce Maria Suari, former president of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) and political commentator Denise Dresser are involved in the movement. "The government is very scared and the electoral commission is really scared," said the organizer. "They feel that we're threatening the system." The movement is asking people to annul their vote, which they do by going to the polls but not voting for any of the candidates.  "We just tell them to put a cross through the whole ballot paper," said the organizer. 

Anulo Mi Voto is currently considering using SMS as a way to report annulled votes, said the organizer, because they fear that the government will not reliably count these votes.  Voters could send a text message to a number reporting their annulled vote and their voting location.  However, even this could be unreliable, she said, because people could report their annulled votes multiple times.  The group has also considered using SMS to organize meetups of people who annuled their votes, and physically counting the votes in this way.

Anulo Mi Voto is currently in talks with Cuidemos El Voto, to see if the two initiatives could collaborate. They are looking at ways for people to report an annulled vote via SMS through Ushahidi, said the organizer. 

At this point, it is unknown how succesful the movement will be.  Two different predictions put the number of annulled votes at 3 percent and the number of annulled and absentee votes at 70 percent, reports Time Magazine.  The Anulo Mi Voto organizer said that she had heard a prediction that 15 percent of voters would annul their vote.

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