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"New Eyes" and Elections

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[Image courtesy of oregonlive.com]

Yesterday, Mashable posted an op-ed by Lance Ulanoff entitled "I Want To Vote With My Smartphone." It's worth reading the whole thing but here are two key passages:

I have a better idea. It's so obvious I can't believe the masses haven't already risen up to demand it: Voting by smartphone. Think about it: We are never without our phones. Most of us own cellphones that can handle data as well as voice. Voting is not a complex process and surely someone could develop an app (or two) that could guide you through the voting process.

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I am not proposing that we abolish all other forms of voting. Not everyone has a smartphone. Some people will never trust the marriage of the election process and digital technology. They can still vote the old-fashioned way. But if we let everyone who wants to vote by phone do so from wherever they are and over a 24-hour period, I bet voter participation will double. We have a year to figure this out before the next presidential election. I propose we at least have a trial program in place by Nov. 8, 2012.

Judging from the comments, reaction to the op-ed - and in particular, agreement with the call for smartphone voting - appears to be a function of familiarity with the election process.

Individuals who are more steeped in the details of election administration can largely be described as aghast - many citing several of the same points made in the discussion last week about Internet voting. Newer voters, on the other hand, seem enthused at the prospect, seeing it as a potential fix for the barriers they perceive in the current election process.

If you'll forgive me, I see the comedian Gallagher.

Gallagher is now best known for his watermelon-smashing escapades, but he had one stock routine that I think is appropriate to the Mashable discussion. He would talk about how children encountered the world with "new eyes" (e.g. calling restaurants "dinner stores") and how much it encouraged him to step back and do the same.

It's tempting for those of us election geeks who have been in the business for a while to laugh and shake our heads at what appears to be the misguided enthusiasm of newcomers, but I think we should appreciate the enthusiasm, resist the urge to dismiss it as misguided - and use items like the Mashable op-ed as teachable moments for newcomers and oldtimers alike.

Smartphone voting poses many difficult challenges. Not only are there security and privacy issues involved but also potential equity issues given the high cost of smartphones and the data plans that feed them. And yet, rather than shut down the discussion about smartphones and elections, it's vitally important to realize how important that kind of technology has become in today's America.

For example, a recent poll conducted for Pew's Voting Information Project found that nearly 2 out of 3 voters under 35 would first use search engines to look for election information. I'm willing to bet that huge numbers of those voters would conduct that search on a smartphone or mobile tablet, given the high degree of penetration of such technology in that demographic.

In short, I think it's a mistake to assume that the passion for new ideas like smartphone voting will dissipate once newcomers understand the challenges as well as "experts" in the field. Indeed, newcomers might actually possess the knowledge and motivation to overcome the challenges identified by the experts.

We need "new eyes" in the field of elections - not just to spot new opportunities but also to help see old challenges in a new - and perhaps solvable - way.

Not every new idea is worth adopting, but almost every new idea is worth pursuing - if only by thinking about it for a while.

It may not be as fun as smashing watermelons with a big mallet, but it's the only way the field of elections is going to progress. Try on some "new eyes" today.

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