New technologies for voter mobilization — instant messaging?

I have to admit — I’m an avid user of “instant messaging” (IM), as many of my friends and colleagues know (and some of my students have learned), IM is a great way for us to communicate quickly and cheaply.

We are not the only ones who use IM. In a recent study, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that in the United States:

  • An estimated 53 million American adults use IM.
  • On a typical day, 12% of Internet users IM with others (about 13 million using IM daily).
  • Of those 18 to 27 years old, almost half said they used IM more frequently than email.

And these results are about a year old!

The question that numbers like these inevitably raise is how can this technology (possibly) be used to mobilize voters? Can it be used to get people to the polls? Can it be used for voting?

An example of how IM might be used for voter mobilization comes from a recent study presented at the American Political Science Association meetings. This study, by Sandra L. Suarez of Temple University (“Mobile Democracy: Text Messages, Voter Turnout, and the 2004 Spanish General Election”), examines how text messaging appears to have had a dramatic effect on voter mobilization in the recent election in Spain, and thus pointing out some of the potential of technologies like IM for getting people out to vote.

While Suarez does not present in her paper any conclusive data documenting a precise linkage between IM and voter mobilization in this election, she does present a series of smoking guns. First, she notes that “According to news reports, there were 40 percent more SMS messages (on election day) than on the average day. Information about the investigation (of the terrorist bombing in Madrid) and the protests was reportedly the topic of conversation among SMS users” (page 13). Second, the governmental party was upset in this election because the opposition party “received the support of almost 3 million more votes than in 2000. About half of the 3 million new (opposition party) voters came from former absentee voters, who tend to be young (ages 18-29) as well as left leaning. The remainder came from voters who became eligible to vote for the first time in 2004 (there were 603,711 new eligible voters), former (government party) supporters who changed their vote, and the so-called `tactical vote’ from … the former communists” (pages 12-13). Third, Suarez argues that the IM contacts, circulated repeatedly immediately before the election, constituted something like the personal get-out-the-vote stimulation that others (like Green and Gerber) have focused recent research on — a stimulus at least sufficient to mobilize enough young and new voters to make it possible for the opposition party to defeat the incumbent party.

Thus, while Suarez’s work does not give any generalizable analysis of how IM might necessarily be used for voter mobilization, it does show that technologies like IM, in certain situations and for certain populations, might sometimes be used to get people involved in the political process. We clearly need additional research, but more about that below.

As to voting, one set of studies that have been undertaken by the UK Electoral Commission have directly studied the use of text messaging for ballot casting. Based on these studies, the Electoral Commission concluded in it’s 2002 report, Modernising Elections:

  • “Anecdotal evidence in Liverpool, both from interviews with voters and from call center staff responding to queries, suggest that those using text-message voting were generally younger voters … Electors clearly took advantage of the new multi-channel voting arrangements to choose the voting method with which they were most familiar and comfortable” (page 46).
  • “For disabled people, SMS text messaging was in many ways the most simple of the electronic voting pilots. All the user had to do was send a string of numbers to an election phone number using their mobile phone. They would then receive a reply if their vote had been verified. Some disabled people, especially those with hearing impairments, use text messaging to communicate regularly and may have found this system especially useful” (page 49).
  • “…the Commission is not aware of any substiantiated allegations of fraud or malpractice, and there is no evidence to suggest that the procedures provided for by the scheme led to any increase in peronation or other electoral offences, or in any other malpractice in collection with elections. Nevertheless, if public concern about the possibility of fraud were to grow, it could potentially undermine confidence in the use of electronic systems” (page 49).
  • “These (electronic voting) pilots involved substantial investments of public money … In the short-term, the pilots did not provide good value for money with regard to the cost per vote” (page 50).

Thus, these pilot projects in the UK show that technologies like IM appear to appeal to certain groups of voters, like younger and disabled voters.

So what do these studies imply for voter mobilization in the United States? First, we do need to be aware of the simple fact that technologies like IM are used much more frequently in Spain and the UK than in the US. Thus, at least in the very near future, the potential utility of technologies like IM for mobilizing voters in the US might be more limited than in other nations where IM is much more common.

But, technologies like IM may have great potential to mobilize those who use these technologies, and we ought to be studying their potential in exactly the sorts of field experiments that have recently become popular for studying other types of get-out-the-vote efforts. The important question for this research is whether IM messages might work as Suarez argued, having the effect of a personal contact to mobilize a voter, or whether it might be more like a telephone mobilization message, which Green and Gerber’s research generally finds to not have the same impact on mobilization as personal and face-to-face contacts.

Third, specific technologies like IM can be used to help mobilize some populations of voters, for example, young and disabled voters. Research should focus on how these technologies can target specific populations, especially those that may not already be highly likely to vote.

The potential here is interesting, because IM messages aimed at getting recipients to vote could be sent, and then forwarded to people on the receiver’s “buddy list”, thus multiplying greatly the potential effect of IM-based mobilization strategies. IM get-out-the-vote messages could contain factual information about where to vote, or links to where that information is located. This technology may open up interesting new opportunities for organizations seeking to mobilize voters, for political parties and candidates for running for office, and for election officials.