10.21.10

Killer Election Apps

Candidates around the country are using smartphone apps to track and register voters. Brian Ries on the coolest, most cutting-edge political technology.

In Massachusetts, gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill is using an election app that some say helped propel Republican Scott Brown into the Senate. ( The Boston Phoenix called it “The iPhone app that killed Coakley”.)

In Michigan, former Gateway CEO and Supernerd Rick Snyder began using Walking Edge during the Democratic primary; he is now a dedicated fan of the smartphone canvassing app, and intends to use it for the last few weeks before the gubernatorial election.

In Nevada, Sharron Angle has also become a fan of Walking Edge. But she has also been using another Republican Web Development app called Calling Edge and is said to be mulling over a third app for a Triple Play package.

Gallery: Political Apps

Even Tea Party Patriots have reportedly signed a deal to use the technology for an impending nationwide push before the midterms.

Welcome to the year of the election app.

Streamlining how volunteers canvass voters by using smartphone apps is one of the ways emerging technologies are revolutionizing how political races are fought.

In Colorado, for example, supporters of State Senate Majority Leader John Morse are using MiniVAN, an iPhone canvassing application developed by the Voter Application Network—“the world’s largest provider of voter contact technology”—an app that makes it possible for campaign workers to drive through their “turf” much quicker, while typing in comprehensive notes on voters, says campaign manager, Nate McNeil. “With the iPhone, you can drive down from Denver and load the voter list ahead of time,” he says, saving time, paper, and helping avoid logistical complications.

Even Tea Party Patriots have reportedly signed a deal to use the application for an impending nationwide push before the midterms.

Other ways campaigns are using new technologies include cloud computing, and prioritizing social media.

At the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C., a small team of computer programmers have been furiously coding away. Known internally as "The Labs," the staffers recently updated the Organizing for America iPhone app, which enables volunteers to go out and canvass their neighborhoods using voter data and a script provided directly on their iPhone.

“Traditionally, people got a clipboard, they got paper,” says Josh Hendler, Director of Technology for the DNC. “They'd go to an office, then go around with their paper, write everything down, then go back to office, and finally, enter the data.”

Time saved, he says, makes all the difference in this closely fought election.

Two years ago, the Obama campaign famously utilized email and social media such as Facebook to mobilize especially younger voters. Now, harnessing the power of new technologies has become a must for all campaigns.

"A light bulb for us in 2008 was recognizing…[what] can be generated by tapping into people online, and giving them easy ways to get involved that don't require going to an office, or giving up a whole day," says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief Technology Officer and Founding Partner of Blue State Digital which created Neighbor-to-Neighbor, a successful crowd-sourcing tool that provided the Obama campaign with voter information.

“A couple of years ago, it was ‘we want a website to push our message out’,” says Clay Schossow, a partner at design firm New Media Campaigns, which builds websites for congressional candidates. “Now, it’s integrating all online channels and having them feed off the Web.”

Schossow says that most candidates are now expected to have a social component to their website, a place where supporters can connect with friends and exchange information—something more dynamic and interactive than a collection of RSS feeds, policy statements, and pictures of the family.

Some, like Schossow, see a political future where everyone’s connected through the social Web—the candidate, supporters, and supporters’ friends. Feeds and political thumbs-up from friends will take the place of newspaper endorsements, Schossow believes. “I care who my friends are voting for more than some anonymous editorial board,” he says.

And tapping into the cloud—the virtual servers where data can be stored off-site—can be crucial, especially during hard-fought and contentious races when sites might otherwise slow down or crash because of sudden bursts of traffic.

As Larry Ward, the president of Political Media Inc., a North-Carolina based Web design firm that designs content-management systems for GOP candidates, puts it: "When you're talking 2012, a candidate that has a good cloud solution, and a good system that can expand rapidly, could take better advantage of a story that catches fire.”

Erwin Mazariegos, a developer who creates political apps for pTracker, LLC, says the technology will “truly expand people’s reach and power.” Two years from now, he predicts, “the average citizen will be incredibly informed and empowered in all aspects of the democratic process."

Franklin-Hodge is more skeptical. Campaigns, he says, need to develop their technologies based on the viewpoints of the organizer, fundraiser, or voter—not necessarily the technologist.

"There's a real tendency of folks in technology to get fascinated by the latest shiny thing that folks are using," he explained. "One year it's Facebook apps, the next it's Foursquare. The question that needs to be driving decisions about what to build or integrate is 'How does this help me win elections?'"

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.