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Romney Campaign Will Use Smartphones To Track Voter Turnout

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, October 31 2012

Tracking voters: The Romney campaign is asking smartphone-wielding volunteers to track the vote on election day.

Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is aiming to train 20,000 volunteers to monitor polls in battleground states using a smartphone application. The app appears to allow those monitors to note it on their phones in real-time as they see and identify voters arrive at the polls. An instruction manual shows that the app will also enable those monitors to update party headquarters on turnout levels and report any potential problems or legal issues.

Some liberal blogs have asserted that the program amounts to a voter suppression program. But the manual states on every page that "It is not necessary to talk to or confront voters in any circumstances."

Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital director, did not respond to a query for comment on the program. A spokesman for President Obama's re-election campaign did not respond to a query on whether Obama for America has a similar program.*

Those who've participated as volunteers in get-out-the-vote efforts say that the technology is simply a natural evolution of traditional paper-and-pencil-powered GOTV operations. On election day, it's an added bonus when door-knockers get information and about who's already shown up to the polls and who hasn't — it means they can pass over the homes of people who have already voted.

"In 2004 I ran part of a city field campaign, and data on who voted was only so useful because I couldn’t get it immediately to the phone banks to stop making phone calls to those people," said Kevin Greenberg, a Democrat, and an election lawyer in Philadelphia. "I just couldn’t share the data that was fast enough or meaningful enough. The devices weren’t as sophisticated."

Speaking of the smartphone reporting app, Greenberg said: "It’s something that’s been done in a number of jurisdictions in the past, but with the advent of new technologies and the amount of money being spent in the election, it’s much more likely to happen again this time, that people will be reporting in real-time. There’s a value in doing this today that there wasn’t in the past."

Both Greenberg and Katrin Verclas, a board member of MobileActive, a group that advises non-profits on novel uses of mobile technology, say that this kind of activity makes perfectly legitimate uses of public voter roll information.

"It's a very natural progression" of existing GOTV campaigns, Verclas said. "You're moving from paper checkoff to a much more systematic, and presumably faster way to check off voters at the polling stations, where information can be relayed back to a data center in real-time."

"If I'm a pollwatcher, and I stand there with my smartphone app, and I have the voter rolls of that polling station, and all of the registered Republicans, and I check off every person who's coming in from 9 to noon, and at noon, I say: 'Send' and the data center center at the back-end gets all the data of all the people who haven't showed up, they obviously can be called from a centralized call bank to be turned out."

"Because it's publicly-available information, I'm not sure whether it's creepy or not," she said when asked whether she thought that this level of tracking is creepy.

But Greenberg acknowledged that some voters might find it unsettling.

“This is simply technology catching up to a longstanding practice, and it’s a situation where transparency, which is almost always a good thing, becomes a little intimidating when combined with individualized personal information," he said.

*Update:In response to our queries, Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said Thursday via e-mail: "As we did in 2008 and as all smart campaigns do, we're using leading-edge technology to help us track voter turnout in real time on Election Day, maintain awareness about turnout levels, and monitor any voter protection issues that may arise at the ground level throughout the day. But what's most important to us - and will be more effective on Election Day than any app - is the massive grassroots organization we've built and the conversations with undecided voters we've maintained for months and years. Our biggest advantage is our neighbor-to-neighbor relationships and our volunteers working in their communities to win President Obama four more years to keep taking us forward."

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