- Political organizers are using apps to reach out to potential voters in an election year marked by a worldwide pandemic.
- Sharing messages with friends and family is a big focus.
- Data privacy is still a central concern when designing political apps.
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As the Coronavirus pandemic continues during an election year, technology is playing an evolving role in connecting organizers with voters ahead of the US presidential election on November 3rd.
Continued social distancing precautions have not only prompted Americans to request absentee ballots in record numbers, but have affected political organizing strategies as well. While Trump campaigners are still knocking on doors this year, Democrats are taking that organizing online and over the phone, Politico reported in August. Both parties are using apps and websites to encourage supporters to reach out to others before the election.
With online organizing tools, the outcomes of political conversations with family or friends can become valuable pieces of data. Progressive organizers are largely turning to online platforms instead of knocking on doors this year, such as The Tuesday Company’s Team app. The app allows a person to join a cause, connects them with organizers, and identifies which people in their social networks to contact with messages about the campaign.
Team was originally developed before the pandemic, but has only seen its use case strengthen since. The app focuses largely on a strategy called relational organizing, which involves sending messages to friends and family about causes or candidates close to one’s heart.
Campaign volunteers can use the app to send direct messages and e-mails to their contacts, then follow up with organizers about how the conversations went. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, unions, and nonprofits are among the organizations that have used the platform.
“We did not build Team for a crisis, but it is the only way to do the type of organizing that has to happen in a year like this,” Tuesday Company Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Shola Farber told Lifewire in a phone interview. Volunteers in every state are using the platform, she says.
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The Tuesday Company also acquired an app called VoteWithMe in 2019, which allows smartphone users to quickly access their contacts’ public voter history and send them reminders to vote. Although more limited than Team, VoteWithMe can be a handy tool for outreach during the presidential election for those who don’t necessarily want to join a full-on campaign. However, Glamour recently reported that the app may show incomplete or incorrect data in certain cases.
Americans also have the ability to sign up for the presidential candidates’ official apps, which both encourage users to connect with people they know in different ways. A key feature of Joe Biden’s Vote Joe app is the ability to message friends and family with campaign information by syncing contacts, in addition to other activities such as finding volunteer opportunities and sharing social media content.
Donald Trump’s app, on the other hand, turns connecting with friends into a game. Users who complete activities like sharing the app can get points to redeem for merchandise, and also use it to watch videos and stay on top of campaign news.
While both candidates’ apps have raised data privacy concerns, the Trump app is “collecting huge amounts of voter data,” according to a recent New Yorker article. In a study published by MIT Technology Review, University of Texas at Austin propaganda researchers Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley found Trump’s app has “a much longer list of access requests” for certain types of data than Biden’s.
Recently, Biden’s app was recently found to have a bug that, as TechCrunch explained, “allowed anyone to look up sensitive voter information on millions of Americans.” The campaign has said it fixed the problem, which was pointed out by The App Analyst blog.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Not all organizing is digital, of course. Nonprofit Vote Forward is using technology to achieve a lofty, less technical goal this year: Convince volunteers to send 10 million letters encouraging Americans to vote before the presidential election. The project, created by Scott Forman, combines the low-tech pastime of letter-writing with data science.
Volunteers sign up for the project with their email or social media accounts, then decide which state to send letters to. They can choose to “adopt” either five or 20 unlikely voters, who receive a letter urging them to cast a ballot.
The letter is based on a template with standard language, but the sender personalizes it with a short message about why they vote. The project discourages senders from mentioning a particular candidate in their letters to make the messages more effective, and largely uses publicly-available voter data to choose the receivers.
Most of Vote Forward’s work is nonpartisan, Forman told Lifewire in a Zoom meeting. “The goal is to boost voter turnout among members of historically underrepresented parts of the electorate—people of color, young people, and people who have been subject to various kinds of voter suppression—that’s the core of our work.”
The project’s strategy is based on randomized controlled trials done in Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania between 2017 and 2019. “We can increase voter turnout by anywhere from one to multiple percentage points compared to a randomized control group just by sending them a note in the mail,” Forman said.
The research shows that the letters are most effective when sent as close as possible to the election date; senders will be notified soon about exactly when to put theirs in the mail.