TXT Out the Vote

Posted by BrettMeyer on Aug 27, 2007

Much was made of a poll conducted by Zogby International and Rock the Vote just before the 2004 Presidential election. The poll, taken solely over mobile phones, showed John Kerry with a significant lead over George W. Bush. The predictive failure of this groundbreaking poll may be due to the fact that while only 2.3% of the 18- to 29-year-old poll respondents said they did not plan to vote, U.S. census data shows that the actual turnout by the youngest voting blocks was much lower than the national average of 64%, with participation at a mere 47% among those age 18 to 24.

With the run-up to the next election about to hit its stride, pollsters and political strategists alike must be turning their attention to the potential uses of cell phones, particularly as it concerns the youth vote. According to Neilson Media Research, upwards of 70% of U.S. households own at least one cell phone, and 7% have done away with land-lines entirely; the percentage of cell phone-only households rises to nearly 20% in the 18- to 29-year-old demographic. Unsurprisingly, this age group is also far more likely to use their cells for text messaging.

So the tactics, they are a-changing. Before local council election in Scotland this past May, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Scotland acted on a study suggesting that text reminders and information could increase voter turnout, especially among young people. David Orr, Scottish Youth and Campaigns Officer with ERS Scotland, said, "...text reminders are far more likely to encourage young people to vote in an election than a variety of other more traditional methods, including radio, television and billboard advertising." The ERS set up a system so that anyone texting 'Vote' to a specified phone number -- published extensively in the Scottish Sun newspaper -- would receive 2 text messages on the day of the election, reminding them to vote and offering instructions on how to vote. A week before polling day, they already had 1,500 participants, drawn in part, perhaps, to the chance to win a Volkswagen Golf, dubbed the "Voteswagon".

Progress Pittsburg, "a coalition of citizens who think it's time for change", are promoting a similar service in support of a bill designed to improve the transparency of electronic voting machines. The "Democracy Campaign" will use text messages to alert participants when the bill "is coming to the floor for a vote, and ... when your activism will have the most impact on other important bills and initiatives to help protect voting rights and the integrity of elections."

Advocacy groups may do well to look back to the United Kingdom. Andrew Hughes, a lecturer at the Australian National University, notes that "...in the UK, recently, they sent mobile text messages out to people in certain areas. Now, the message was targeted at people who had concerns in those areas over things like economics, so you might get a text message saying, 'Have you considered how much interest rates have increased recently?'."

It's no secret that political parties use increasingly sophisticated databases to map their campaigns. Jeffrey Toobin wrote several years ago in the New Yorker about a software application named Caliper's Maptitude for Redistricting: "The software permits mapmakers to analyze an enormous amount of data—party registration, voting patterns, ethnic makeup from census data, property-tax records, roads, railways, old district lines." Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "We have become very good at predicting how people are going to vote. People’s partisanship is at a thirty-year high. If I know you voted for Gore, I am better able to predict that you are going to vote for any given Democrat in a future election."

Given that level of detailed knowledge, actually getting people out to vote becomes ever more paramount. If American Idol can attract 7.5 million text message votes, it stands to reason that political advocacy groups have at their disposal the next great get-out-the-vote device. But who will come up with the political answer to Carrie Underwood?

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