Voter Protection, Twitter Style

Organizers and volunteers at the Twitter Vote Report project have spent the last few weeks furiously hacking together a real-time reporting system for tracking problems at the polls. By the time the Web site, launched last Wednesday, text messages from early voters were already filtering in. Here's one from Michigan:

"My #early #votereport - absentee ballots in #48823 require extra postage. Don't let a $0.15 slipup keep your voice from being heard!"

While this may look like gobbledygook, the basic concept is simple. To submit a report all that users need is a cell phone -- text 66937 -- or a Twitter account. To be included, the message must contain a tag that marks the submission : #votereport. Other optional tags signify zip code (#48823) and context (#early). For emergencies, there's a tag voters can use to call for help from the Election Protection coalition.

"The hard truth is that so many of the problems that crop up on Election Day slip through the cracks or only get looked at on the day after Election Day," says Nancy Scola, associate editor at the Personal Democracy Forum's techPresident blog, and one of the project's founders. In previous elections, voting protection work has been the province of lawyers and advocacy groups, slowing down reporting and leading to charges of bias. "With Twitter, we can decentralize things so that people can help other people work out their own problems with voting," she explains.

Twitter, a microblogging site that allows users to submit 140 character posts or "tweets" online or via SMS, has become a powerful tool for campaign reporting and mobilizing. Current TV used Twitter to hilarious effect during the latest round of debates, streaming tweets tagged with the code "#current" under the candidate's faces, and will be featuring Twitter Vote Report submissions as part of its Election Day coverage. On Twitter's Election 2008 site, updates pile in at one per second, revealing sometimes raw sentiments from the left, right, and center. "McCain's rev. Wright ad is over the top. It makes me hate McCain even more than I did before. I hope McCain dies and rots in hell!" tweets mike3k, a Florida-based software developer, while BreakTheirBones, whose bio reads "Liberty First!" warns "Talk to your kids now about the dangers of voting #obama!"

Scola got the idea to use the technology for voter protection after watching Twitter user notq coordinate protest, press, and legal-aid efforts at the 2008 RNC remotely via his desktop in Tempe, Arizona. She sat down with colleague Allison Fine, a senior editor at the Personal Democracy Forum and senior fellow at Demos, to draft an Oct. 6 post titled "Twitter: An Antidote to Election Day Voting Problems?" The duo was amazed by the response.

"The project has really been energized by all of the volunteers," says Fine. "It's been three weeks from blog post to Web site, and not a penny spent." Not only have developers crafted the project Web site, they've designed logos and T-shirts, come up with a press strategy, and begun to stress-test the system for high-load use on Election Day. Free or low-cost online collaboration tools like Google Groups and a Wiki, have powered this virtual barn-raising effort.

While many of the participants have not met face to face, the popular Web-based news show Rocketboom caught up with attendees at a "coding party" for the project at Brooklyn's Change You Want to See Gallery. Crammed in laptop to laptop, coders were working on backend improvements that would allow voters to submit reports via multiple formats, including applications for the iPhone and new open-source Android-based phones, as well as a call-in number for voice messages.

"I swear there's something different happening on the Wiki every time I check in," says Scola. "I come from a more structured background -- Capitol Hill, a presidential campaign -- so this has been a lesson in learning to go with the flow."

According to Fine, the response from traditional voter-protection groups has also been extraordinary. "National groups like the Election Protection Coalition, Rock the Vote and Common Cause immediately got it and signed on -- without concerns about institutional lines," she says. This is smart organizing. Because Twitter serves as a powerful amplifier -- popular members can have hundreds of "followers" -- the hope is that, working together, these groups can make poll-monitoring efforts more visible.

As a nonpartisan project, Twitter Vote Report also has a couple of surprising media partners: NPR and PBS. Public broadcasters have been using the election as an opportunity to experiment with many different kinds of social media, and NPR staffers have been collaborating directly on Twitter Vote Report development. "We only have so many reporters who are able to tackle voting irregularities, and they're going to be working like mad," explained NPR Social Media Strategist Andy Carvin on Weekend Edition. "If volunteers all over the country are looking at this as well, they may spot something in a part of the country that we just haven't looked at yet. So it’s a way of spreading the workload out." PBS, meanwhile, is working with YouTube on a parallel project called Video the Vote, and Twitter Vote Report programmers are working to feature those videos on their maps.

Fine-tuning related maps and visualizations has been a major priority over the weekend. Live, cumulative, and state-specific maps are all now available in beta, and a site called Plodt graphs local wait times reported by participants. Volunteers were also hustling to get the word out to media, bloggers, and especially across the tweetosphere. "If this works, it will be because this crazy idea of reporting your vote on Twitter goes viral via Twitter," says Scola.

If participants are lucky, they'll be like Britni in Dallas, Texas: "quick and easy," she tweeted about her early voting experience on Thursday. "no lines."