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Announcing the Facebook Youth Primary

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, January 3 2008

Do younger voters have something to tell the rest of America? The League of Young Voters and Political Action are betting that they do, and along with a growing coalition of youth-oriented groups, they are launching a "Facebook Primary" application aimed at highlighting the views of voters under the age of 35. In essence, they're launching a virtual presidential primary in every school and college in America today, along with many workplaces and localities. The primary is the most innovative political use of the Facebook Platform that I have seen so far, and if the League of Young Voters' application takes off, the primary could have a galvanizing effect among the millions of young people who spend upwards of two hours a day on the giant social network hub.

Yesterday, I spoke with Sam Dorman, national director of online programs for the LYV, and Eli Pariser, head of Political Action, and they gave me this preview. The idea for the primary came from LYV, which wanted to "demonstrate that young people are engaged and are paying attention right now," Dorman says.
Anyone with a profile on Facebook will be able to vote using the new application, which was developed with MoveOn's help.

They're launching with a big push to several hundred thousand MoveOn members who are currently or were recently students, plus the 60,000 members of the LYV, which primarily organizes among low-income and youth of color.

Here's where things get interesting: Not only can you pick a candidate, you can state your reasons for your vote, and also pick any of eleven issues to express whatever is your greatest concern. Results will be visible by any Facebook network: region, school, work, etc. Says Dorman, "You have the choice whether you want to tell your friends who you voted for and why, or you can do it by secret ballot." What that means, he says, is that soon you'll be seeing news feed messages like "So-and-so voted for Barack Obama because he's a smart guy." Adds Pariser, "The fun part will be to be able to look into your networks and see how candidates are doing, which will hopefully give people a reason to get more involved." In a nice touch, the app integrates Glassbooth to help would-be voters figure out which candidates are most closely aligned to their opinions on the major issues.

The primary application will only allow one vote per Facebook account. "We're definitely going to be monitoring the hanky-panky quotient, to watch out for any ballot rigging or stuffing," says Dorman. Unfortunately for us geezer-boomer types, a vote will only be counted if you are under the age of 35. (Time to change your birthdate on your Facebook profile!) Voting is open until Feb. 5, the date of Super Tuesday. "We're really encouraging people to do it in the first week," says Dorman.

About 20 groups have signed on to help spread the word, including the United States Students Association (USSA), Rock the Vote, Campus Progress, Camp Wellstone,, ColorofChange, DaveyD, Hip Hop Caucus, Hip Hop Congress, Future 5000, Progress OH, New Era Colorado, Forward Montana, Washington-Oregon Bus Project and Music for America.

That list is pretty tilted to the left, so I asked Dorman and Pariser if the primary really wasn't just a Democratic event. Dorman answered, "There's nothing partisan about the primary itself--it doesn't favor Democrats or Republicans. We're interested in organizing young people to get them more engaged." That said, a glance at the screenshot Dorman provided hints at trouble to come. For starters, while you can self-identify as Democrat, Republican, Independent or Green, you'll have to write in the word "Libertarian."

But Dorman insists the project isn't partisan, "We've reached out to all the campaigns to let them know this is happening. Most of them have some sort of Facebook presence, so that seems pretty natural."

Pariser added, "Our goal is to highlight how engaged young folks are in this election and in the process establish a way of communicating with and engaging with progressive young folks on Facebook that we can use in the future. We wanted to give folks an opportunity to vote however they want to vote," though he admitted, "Young voters do skew towards progressives."

Does it make sense to organize on Facebook, given that the network tilts upscale among young people, while MySpace arguably has more working class and Hispanic users? Dorman answered, "That's the conventional wisdom, but it's under a lot of debate from our affiliates."

As for where this may go from an organizing perspective, obviously a popular Facebook application is automatically a channel into the profile pages of innumerable individuals. "If people opt-in to receive emails this will grow our list," Dorman notes. Pariser is also optimistic about the primary leading to more robust forms of political engagement with Facebook members. For example, he noted, "We could say to people now that you've voted online, here's a way to really register to vote and plug them into Rock the Vote's widget. If the Facebook application space continues to be workable, there are more interesting opportunities to organize on Facebook. While I'd love to see a social network emerge that isn't a walled garden, this could be a really exciting organizing medium."

Indeed--though imagine if Facebook itself created and promoted such a process! (Instead, the site's managers seem almost childlike in their reticence to engage the political process directly--to wit, see the upcoming ABC News/Facebook presidential debate in New Hampshire, which so far appears to be little more than a co-branding exercise.) But maybe Zuckerberg and crew will be watching the League of Young Voters and MoveOn's experiment with interest; at a minimum, it should show up in their news feeds.