The Role of Citizen Media in Ensuring Fair Elections

Yesterday, I read an article in the New York Times describing the fears some voters in Duval County, Florida have that their early votes will be lost and never counted.  I found the article deeply disturbing.  It wasn't because it surprised me that people fear their votes won't be counted (that fear has some precedent in Duval County, where 26,000 ballots were discarded in the 2000 election), but because it brought into focus for me the apprehensive feelings I've been having about the upcoming election.  I have this nagging feeling that something . . . well, terrible . . . is going to happen.  At bottom, I'm concerned that the election isn't going to be fair.  That the voters' will will be thwarted.

I don't think I am the only one who feels this way.  The evidence of chatter from both sides of the political divide reveals a wide current of apprehension and skepticism about the legitimacy of our election system generally, and this election in particular.  For a flavor of these concerns, see Time's recent piece on 7 Things That Could Go Wrong on Election Day which concludes that the American voting system is "a worrisome mess, a labyrinth of local, state and federal laws spotted with bewildered volunteers, harried public officials, partisan distortions, misdesigned forms, malfunctioning machines and polling-place confusion."

Even a cursory review of these problems reveals them to be systemic and in many instances intractable.  We certainly aren't going to fix them all between now and November 4.  But that doesn't mean we are powerless to do anything about it.  After all, this is OUR ELECTION. 

We can use the technological tools most of us have in our pocket right now to get started down the path of fixing these problems.  I am talking about cell phones with text messaging, photo, and video capabilities. These incredibly powerful -- and network enabled -- tools can allow you to share your experience in near-real-time.  How long was the line to get into your polling place?  Did you have difficulty registering to vote or proving that you were registered?  Did you experience any problems with the voting equipment? Did you see any evidence of voter fraud or suppression?  Even if you don't have a cell phone with these capabilities, you have access to a computer, right?  Gena Haskett at BlogHer has a number of great suggestions for ways you can share your voting experiences.

If you have the capability to take photos or video, you can document the problems you experience in a more compelling and concrete way than mere textual descriptions provide.  This is what is so exciting about the projects that are helping voters "video the vote," including YouTube's Video Your Vote project (note: CMLP is involved with this project) and Video the Vote, a national initiative to protect voting rights by monitoring the electoral process.  Both of these ventures make it easy to upload your videos and share them with the world.  Keep in mind that a number of states limit what you can record in and around polling places, so you will want to check the Documenting Your Vote page in our legal guide before heading to the polls.

But simply capturing the experiences of individual voters is only one part of a larger effort to understand and make a record of what is going on at the polls during the election. In fact, we really see the potential for citizen media in the websites that aggregate and filter information submitted by individual voters.  Sites such as, which provides a crowd-sourced map of electoral conditions across the United States, and the Voter Suppression Wiki, which seeks to be a collection point for information relating to voter suppression, are examples of sites that are using the power of Web 2.0 to monitor the election. 

These sites could identify problems while they are still small and potentially fixable on election day, as well as provide the impetus for comprehensive election reform.  Imagine if voters in Florida had taken photographs or shot video of the butterfly ballots that caused so much confusion in the 2000 election. If those images had been made available to the public at the time, election officials in Palm Beach might have understood the extent of the problem and acted quickly to replace the ballots or issue additional directions to voters on how to use them.  Perhaps we will see this sort of real-time corrective action in this election, but even if we don't, these sites are laying the groundwork for real-time adjustments in future elections.

But let's return to the issue of election reform, which is where the long-term impact of the efforts to harness the power of citizen media will bear fruit.  One of the impediments to election reform has been the dispersed nature of the problems and the fact that they are largely invisible to the average voter.  As Heather Gerken at Yale Law School noted:

Discarded ballots, long lines, machine breakdowns, registration problems -- these all occur routinely during the election process. But voters only become aware of these problems when a race is close enough for the problem to affect the outcome. Given that most races are not competitive, that's a bit like tracking annual rainfall by counting how often lightening strikes. Because voters learn about election administration problems in a haphazard, episodic fashion, politicians have no incentive to pay attention to them unless there’s what Rick Hasen calls an "electoral meltdown."

If enough voters record and share their experiences on election day, and this information is aggregated and filtered in meaningful ways, this could galvanize voters to demand comprehensive election reform and would begin to provide election officials with the data they need to identify what needs fixing.  

We might also find that by sharing our voting experiences (both the good and the bad), we actually increase voter enthusiasm and turnout.  Voting is, after all, a social act and the quintessential shared experience of our democracy. 

So now that I've convinced you to do your part, here a few resources to help guide you:

  • Election Protection: A non-partisan coalition that aims to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. They have a toll-free number (1-866-OUR-VOTE) that you can call if you experience problems on election day. 

  • Twitter Vote Report: A volunteer network of software developers, designers, and other collaborators who have created a site that allows voters to use Twitter and the tag #votereport to report conditions and problems at the polls. You can also send a message to Twitter Vote Report by sending a text message to 66937 beginning with #votereport; calling (567) 258-VOTE to leave a message by touch tone keypad; or by downloading their iPhone application.

  • BallotVox: Features the perspectives of citizen media, including blog posts, videos, pictures, and podcasts related to the campaign and election.

  • Video the Vote: A national initiative to protect voting rights by monitoring the electoral process.  An old friend and gifted musician Dana Lyons will be giving a free concert at the Video the Vote training in Columbus, Ohio on November 2.

  • Wired's Threat LevelWired's effort to track trouble at the polls.

  • New York Times Polling Place Photo Project: A nationwide experiment in citizen journalism that encourages voters to capture, post and share photographs of this year’s primaries, caucuses and general election.

  • YouTube's Video Your Vote: A non-partisan program produced in partnership with PBS to encourage American voters to document their voting experiences. Videos have already started coming in, including some showing long lines at polling places and touch-screen problems.

  • Our Vote Live: A site that facilitates the documentation, sorting, and organization of election-related problems and inquiries reported by voters to the Election Protection Coalition.

  • A web based platform to generate a crowd-sourced map of electoral conditions across the United States on Election Day 2008.

  • Voter Suppression Wiki: Non-partisan site designed to be a hub of information and action around efforts to suppress votes in the 2008 election.

  • Documenting Your Vote: The Citizen Media Law Project's overview of the legal issues involved in documenting the election, including a list of state election laws, websites, and contact information for election officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as detailed analysis of the law in many battleground states.


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