Insuring Voting Works, One Tweet At A Time: Interview With Allison Fine, Co-Creator

Throughout this election season, social media like blogs and Twitter have helped people observing the political horse race and watching debates talk with each other about what they are seeing. A new Web site that launched two days ago, Twitter Vote Report, aims to take this increased communication to an even more interactive level. If a someone who uses microblogging platform Twitter "tweets" about any trouble they are having on election day, volunteers at Twitter Vote Report will pick up the complaint and dispatch it to the appropriate people who can work to fix it.

Allison Fine, a senior editor at Personal Democracy Forum, and Nancy Scola, acting associate editor at techPresident, blogged about this seed idea for TVR the first week of October. Many read it and offered to help. In just three weeks, Fine, Scola and their all-volunteer team of tech people, writers and activists put together TVR. They have partnered with election protection groups like 866-OUR-VOTE (The Election Protection Coalition), Rock the Vote, Common Cause,, YouTube,, NPR's Social Media Desk, Independence Year Foundation, Center for Community Change, and PBS. (See all participating groups.) Using an open tagging system, these groups can access voting-related tweets on November 4th and act on them, if needed, to help the voting process work better.

I spoke with Ms. Fine yesterday about the process and passion behind this endeavor to make this year's crucial election voting fair and seamless, and how social media has encouraged more people to be fully active participants in their own democracy.

OffTheBus: How and why did you start this?

Alison Fine: We wanted to put out an open tagging system to try to move away from institutions coming up with all of their own systems. Twitter is such an amazing tool, but it works best when it has a critical mass of people talking about an issue. The core of our idea wasn't a fantastically new use of Twitter as much as the idea of sharing a tagging system across organizations.

OTB: Why use Twitter?

AF: We've seen a couple of instances of effective ground-level Twitter usage. Last spring, I heard that young people in California were using Twitter to help organize the immigration marches in real time. It wasn't the old notion of sending out an email that morning when everybody was at their desktop computers and then once they get out onto the street, they were on their own unless they had a friend's cell phone number. Instead, people were using Twitter from their cell phones and finding out where to meet and what the plan was and if there were any contingencies. Then we saw that again when protesters were using Twitter at the Republican National Convention for organizing.

The idea of enabling people to share their opinions in real time like during the debate is a nice use of Twitter. But I think that more importantly for the election, being able to problem solve in real time using Twitter is amazingly powerful.

OTB: Having you seen any tweets yet about voting problems in early-voting states?

AF: Yesterday, somebody sent a tweet in that they just realized that in North Carolina, where they are located, the absentee ballots there require two stamps. I don't know if that's a suppression issue or not, but that would be good for other North Carolinians to know before they stick it in the mail. An ideal use of Twitter is to say, "Hey, everybody, you need to know this." So we're taking this tweet and spreading it around a bit to try to get some mainstream media to pay attention.

This morning we got a tweet saying that there is a Minnesota precinct that has the wrong election date up on its Web site. I sent this report to the head of field operations at the League of Women Voters headquarters, and now she's in contact with that Twitterer to find out which precinct it is and to find out if they can get this information changed.

OTB: People may think that this is minor because it's just one precinct. But if many precincts have the same problem, that could add up to many people possibly being deterred from voting.

AF: That's exactly the power we saw in this.

OTB: How does this "open tagging system" work?

AF: It helps us to aggregate the tweets and sort them by zip code and by issue and then map them. And we have these amazing programmers, including Dave Troy, who is the founder of Twittervision, and he is leading the team of programmers to create a whole series of different kinds of visualizations with the tags. We'll be able to see in real time - imagine a Google map with lots of pins in it - where and what the problems are.

OTB: When someone tweets about a voting problem, what does Twitter Vote Report do next?

AF: We have volunteers watching the Twitter stream to catch problems and refer them. For those who are having what appears to be serious legal problems, we ask them to send a tweet to #ep and then the state code, and the coalition is going to be monitoring those to see if they need to send a lawyer somewhere.

OTB: How have social media, technology and your volunteers made this endeavor possible?

AF: Nancy and I have been writing about networked activism for a numbers of years now. We thought, we've been telling people how to do it. Why don't we be Clay Shirky for a day and give it a try?

It's just amazing to us to see the outpouring of help on the tech side. We'll be having a conversation online as a group through Google and someone will say, "We really need somebody who has mapping visualization skills," and someone in the group will say, "I know a guy," and they'll get them on the line. People are doing their day jobs and doing this, and some of us have just expanded our day jobs with this, and it's working. When you compare it to how much money going into some more institutional efforts that aren't going to match this, that to me is one of the most exciting parts about what we're doing - we have not spent a dime.

These volunteers are really passionate about the election and they have amazing skills and have been willing to contribute them to this effort. It's a remarkable and really heartwarming thing to watch.

OTB: Some have predicted that there could be widespread voting problems on November 4th because this election will have a historically high turnout. Why, in this day and age, does this country still have problems with its voting system?

AF: To me, this is not a technology issue, it's an issue of political will. If we wanted to build a state-of-the-art technology system that is secure - just like online banking is secure and just like eBay is secure - we would do it. The fact is that we haven't made it a priority and there are way too many cooks in the kitchen.

Even when HAVA (the Help America Vote Act) was passed in 2002, which was, in a sense, federalizing a lot of the election systems, it didn't go far enough in creating a blueprint of what an election system has to consist of. There are 3,000 municipalities that all have their own systems. If we wanted this to be fixed, we would put Meg Whitman and Erik Schmidt in charge of it, and we'd fix it.

We have the technology to do all these things. We just need to now have the will and the enthusiasm to use it.

OTB: What could be one of social media's legacies from this election looking towards mid-term elections and 2012?

AF: The next phase of developments isn't going to be so much around political campaigns as much as how do we fundamentally change governance with these new tools that provide greater transparency and greater accountability of elected officials. But also, I hope, social media builds a stronger relationship between elected officials and their constituents; they have to actually keep talking to us, and not just with direct mail every six months. We know where their money is coming from, we know how they're voting, we're watching this all and we can see it. They have to actually talk to us, otherwise they're not going to get reelected.

If you'd like to "tweet the vote" with Twitter Vote Report, here"s how:

If you currently use Twitter, send a message after you vote that begins with #votereport (this is critically important for ensuring that your message gets to the right place.) Then write some or all of the following:

#[zip code] to indicate where you're voting; ex., "#12345″
#machine for machine problems; ex., "#machine broken, using prov. ballot"
#reg for registration troubles; ex., "#reg I wasn't on the rolls"
#wait:minutes for long lines; ex., "#wait:120 and I'm coming back later"
#good or #bad to give a quick sense of your overall experience
#EP+your state if you have a serious problem and need help from the Election Protection coalition; ex., #EPOH
If you don't use Twitter and want to go to, sign up then follow the directions above.

If you want to participate by cellphone but don't want to use Twitter, you can:

- Send a text message to 66937 that begins with "#votereport"
- Key in a report by calling (567) 258-VOTE/8683
- Download and use the iPhone Twitter Vote Report app.