Three 2012 election moments made possible by ubiquitous smartphones

Smartphones have forever changed the way elections happen in our country

Voting machine registering the wrong vote

When I was a young guy in overalls, with even messier hair, my mother brought me with her to the polls, nearly every year. Maybe it was just because I usually had the day off from school, and the polls were fairly close to Price Chopper. But it was a really valuable lesson. Not about civic duty, or which party she hoped I’d grow up to vote for. The lesson was in how easy it was to vote, and how you could do such an important thing with spare time.

I thought of that lesson yesterday morning during my ritual reach-across to the nightstand for my phone, to see what the world had sent to my tiny screen.

Instagram gets out the vote

Twitter and Foursquare were filled with hastily snapped images of black ink on white paper. Photographing your ballot is illegal in some states, but tens of thousands of Instagram users skirted the law and shared their vote. They were preceded by pre-election pledges to vote on social networks taken by 22 percent of registered voters.

Seeing those ballots triggered a familiar feeling. To paraphrase my Twitter-scrolling brain: “All my friends are doing something, so I should maybe try and at least prove I’m as cool as them.” That thought usually results in a half-hearted thought about dropping everything and heading to a particular tavern. In this case, it made me want to move faster that morning and vote. And then get a breakfast burrito at a diner near the polling place, but, hey, I got up early.

I think social evidence and persuasion have been a factor in elections for the last four years, but maybe never so much as this election. And I think mobile has changed at least two other things about the electoral process.

Romney’s “47 percent” moment: entirely due to smartphone tech

On May 17, Mitt Romney spoke at the $3 million home of a Boca Raton hedge fund manager, as part of a $50,000-per-person fundraiser for the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney said during a 45-minute talk that “there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” and described why that was, to no discernible response or outcry. But someone in the crowd used what almost certainly had to be a smartphone to record the moment—sideways on a table, behind some water glasses. Four months later, Mother Jones posted a video excerpt of that “47 percent” talk, and there was quite a bit more response and outcry.

That fundraiser video was almost certainly from a smartphone or, possibly, a Flip-style pocket camcorder. The lens is parked on what looks like a table, or possibly a bar, with a candle holder and water glass looming large in the foreground. Assuming fundraiser guests were held to the expectation that they would not be filming or recording the event, nobody would have dared drag a full-size camera into the event. But at most events these days, you just can’t take people’s smartphones from them. Even if you can, well, phones can be very small, and nobody pays $50,000 for the privilege of facing Threat Level Orange pat-downs.

Ballot machine failures, long lines are instantly provable

It’s one thing to hear somebody swear that their touchscreen voting machine refused to register a vote for Obama, tallying every touch for Romney instead. It’s another thing to see video of that vote refusal. It just so happened that a software developer was the one who first noticed the vote swap, and did his own troubleshooting to discover the tiny sliver of sensitivity that would register for Obama. The machine was later taken offline, “recalibrated,” and restored at the polling place. But without that developer shooting that video, the developer’s official response from his election official was: “It’s nothing to worry about, everything will be okay.”

In general, problems with long lines, touchscreen boxes, illegitimate ID requests, and other impediments are now easy to prove, even easier to share, and hard for people not to take seriously.

The old saying in journalism and public policy is that sunshine is the disinfectant—that exposing any data or policy to the light of day is going to make it inherently less susceptible to corruption and waste. In this year’s elections, and all the rest to come, smartphones are capturing a lot of light and refracting out to the public, to notable effect.

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