The “caravan.” The economy. Coverage for pre-existing conditions. The bleak, vacant, and vitriolic state of the political debate. The Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight. The tax cut bill. The Mueller investigation. Collusion. Russian influence. Separation of powers. The president’s extraconstitutional aspirations.
The midterms are about a lot of big things, serious upheaval, major issues, and significant ideological differences. A variable going undiscussed? That smartphone in your pocket.
A serious, unexplored variable in many get-out-the-vote efforts this year is the convenience factor — or the inconvenience factor, actually — of the act of voting itself. The driving, busing, subwaying, or walking only to wait an unknown amount of time to cast a vote; it’s nearly an anachronism in the year 2018. Yet here we are living in an unprecedented tech-enabled, service-based culture that minimizes the effort of consumers and recreational decisions. Or, in English: When everything comes to us with no threshold of time or energy expended, what does that do to our willingness to go out and vote?
Think about it:
- Americans can have meals, groceries or cabs brought to them with a click on their smartphone.
- Americans can have any movie or program they seek summoned with a click of a remote; further, if we are too tired or lazy to think about what we want to watch, suggestions will be made by the technology.
- Americans can consider potential romantic matches with a swipe of their phone.
True, convenience alone is a welcome and efficient development for parents, employees, and anybody looking to shave a few minutes off tasks or responsibilities. But the open question is: When convenience shifts from an aid to an expectation, do we become less likely to invest the time to actually do things requiring time? Do we stop going to restaurants when we can use an app? Do we stop going to movies when we have the option of on-demand entertainment? The answer, as we’ve seen is this: We may not stop altogether, but we certainly do them less.
Combine this trend with the increasing reliance of more and more Americans on technology as a social outlet — 40 percent of millennials engage more with their phone than friends, significant others, or family members — and the likelihood of even engaged people balking at the 30-60 minute (or more) time investment is nontrivial. Even if we do not have voter apathy as in decades past, is there a chance of voter inertia?
There are some promising signs that voter apathy and inertia may be strictly a phantom concern: solid early election turnout, some corporations actually giving their workers a day off to participate, and doubtlessly an incredibly high level of media attention and civic engagement.
Also, the same apps that are distracting us and bringing us diversions, food, and cabs are also attempting to inform — let’s not say mobilize — phone users with a wide array of voting registration, location, and candidate information.
One concept — and tech entrepreneurs, if you steal my idea, then send my royalty check along — could be to have an app that combines the civic engagement information of places like WeVote or Countable and the activity tracking of a Fitbit, smartphone, or smartwatch by encouraging interested voters to head over to the precinct nearest them and showing how walking or standing there can help them meet their fitness goals for the day. Imagine scenarios like:
- “Need 1200 steps today? Head to the Edison Elementary School voting center and hit that goal while being an engaged citizen.”
- “You’ve been standing for 28 minutes — if you are at the Edison Elementary School voting center, you get 500 calories credit for voting.”
(And yes, Samantha Bee viewers, this is not dissimilar from her “Gamification” concept, but it's more an execution of connecting two app genres that people may already have and make use of, without the political headwinds you would have by trying to market voter mobilization tools across the political spectrum.)
Regardless, the appeal of apps and smartphones is that they have been enormously successful at making mundane, necessary parts of our lives more convenient; there is a possibility that the expectation of convenience may become an impediment to voting. As handheld technology gets ubiquitous, we need to acknowledge the sluggishness it could create among the body politic. So let’s lean in and leverage that tech!
It’s critical that all registered voters plan accordingly to get out and vote next Tuesday (or beforehand with early voting opportunities), and we should be rethinking the apps we live by to be the apps that encourage and cajole us to vote by using the same tactics and appeals they do otherwise.
Oh, and you can totally use Uber or Lyft to go vote. Don’t forget that either.
Matthew Felling (@matthewfelling) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former print/TV/radio journalist, media critic, and U.S. Senate communications director, now serving as a public affairs and crisis consultant with Burson-Marsteller in Washington.