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With the NYC Vote a Mess, Mayor Mike Turns to Twitter. Should We Be Encouraged? Or Terrified?

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 1 2010

Photo credit: asterix611

New York City's Board of Elections is a mess. Just last week, the board fired executive director George Gonzalez for bungling a primary vote where polls opened late, ballot materials ran short, and machines didn't work. With one day to go, Mayor Mike Bloomberg is hoping that a passel of tweeting New Yorkers can step into the breach, reports the Wall Street Journal's Michael Howard Saul (via Anthony Russomano):

"There is no excuse for mistakes or poor management at polling sites, and so we are asking all New Yorkers to report any problems they experience on Election Day," he said. "You can call 311. Or, if you're a Twitter user, simply tweet your experience using #nycvotes."

Last month, the city Board of Elections replaced the old lever-voting machines with a new electronic-scanning system, causing a wide array of problems.

Some poll sites opened hours late. Many of the new machines malfunctioned. And many voters complained about a lack of privacy and mass confusion.

Mr. Bloomberg and other elected officials have said they are deeply worried these problems could resurface when a larger number of voters head to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots for governor, Congress, state attorney general, state comptroller and the entire state Legislature.

"We hope there's few problems, but given how the Board of Elections handled the primary, we really don't have a lot of confidence," Mr. Bloomberg said on Friday.

Now, we've been bearing witness to the fact that mobile vote reporting is all the rage this election cycle. See the recent Foursquare "I Voted" launch or American Majority's Voter Fraud app. Few of these experiments seem to be launched with enough lead time to make it possible for them to have all that much of an effect this election, but we do seem to very quickly be moving to the point where it's becoming conventional wisdom that elections in the United States are social experiences that are often troubled ones -- but, on the bright side, ones that what we know about all our fancy social tools like Twitter and Foursquare and Facebook might help, someday, to make better.

That said, the election problems that have the mayor of America's biggest and most complicated city directing people towards Twitter are a reminder that American voting system has a looong way to go before it's optimized. Forgive the self-link, but back in 2008 I suggested that "new media's obsessiveness" might be a key to "redeeming the vote" in the United States, given that, at least at the time, it seemed a strength of the blogosphere to focus with a geek's laser-like focus on structural problems, from the merits of electronic voting machines to whether it still makes sense for Americans to vote on Tuesdays. We're seeing tremendous amount of innovation when it comes to mobile vote reporting, yup. That's true. But it's probably fair to say that there hasn't been, over the last two years, the sort of collaborative and sustained attention to the deep problems ailing our voting system that we might have reasonably expected to see.

It's certainly neat that we have Twitter and Foursquare and iPhone apps to help clean up American elections at the edges. But are we letting the shine bouncing off those tools blind us to the reality that voting problems aren't going away just because the mayor announces a new hashtag?

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