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How Progressive Groups Used Facebook to Check 2014 Voting Behavior

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, November 4 2014

(via Jeff Lennan)

Facebook ran its "voter megaphone" initiative in the United States Tuesday, letting users indicate whether they are voting and see similar messages from their friends, as our Micah Sifry has been covering in detail.

But what about the possibility of actually being able to verify that your Facebook friends have voted?

That is the functionality made possible through a tool in use over the past week in Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Built by developer Josh Cohen, it lets users check whether their Facebook friends in those states participated in early voting based on ballot data and send them a Facebook message.

Called Did they Vote or Voting with Friends, Cohen built the tool for use by the groups Defend Oregon, a coalition of progressive groups in the state, the Washington State Democrats and Fair Share Colorado, an economic justice organization. The sites also have a leaderboard showing which users have sent the most messages to their friends.

Cohen explained that the tool first originated in 2009 during a referendum on domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians, when it let users see if friends had signed a petition circulated by traditional marriage groups to call the referendum, and was first built by two other developers Brian Murphy and Justin Voskuhl at whosigned.org.

In 2012, Cohen, who has worked as a technology consultant for several LGBT equality organizations and was director of technology for Washington United for Marriage, repurposed the tool to track early voting in the first all-mail voting election in a year that also included a gay marriage referendum.

That year, with the new voting system, "it was something that kind of came at the last minute," Cohen said. But after a few other campaigns in Washington made use of the tool, "now a few years later, as early voting is becoming more available across the country, the idea kind of started to grow from a more isolated situation to a general solution," he said.

A contact with Winning Mark, an Oregon-based progressive campaign media group, prompted him to rewrite and improve the application to make it more stable and add features. After the Oregon and Washington tools came about through his previous contacts, the Colorado campaign reached out to him after seeing the Oregon tool. Among the campaigns making heavy use of the tool in Oregon is Vote Yes on 91, a marijuana legalization effort.

For Cohen, beyond the idea of online "social pressure" to vote, the tool illustrates the benefits and challenges of having common API standards that would make it easier integrate citizen data from different systems. That is a cause he has been advocating for as chairman of the Open Supporter Data Interface, which is working on establishing API and data structure definitions for use by progressive groups. Supporters of the effort include ActBlue, Blue State Digital, NGP VAN and Amicus.

For working with the tool, Cohen receives the voting data in spreadsheet format from his clients, the organizations, who obtain it from election officials.

"A lot of the data export/import has to be manual and it's error prone," Cohen said. "Oftentimes to minimize your pain you'll cut out a lot of the data that's interesting but isn't critical," he added, pointing out how one extra data point in one column can choke the entire database.

"The lack of common APIs definitely makes it more complicated," he said. "This is just one kind of example where you can see how movement of data and integration can provide value."

Currently, he said, such functionality is only accessible to large-scale presidential or very large state campaigns. "What I hope to see is more common APIs and different vendors that support them so that these kinds of things become accessible to smaller and smaller campaigns," he said.

Cohen said he felt that reaction had been "mostly positive," even though there had been some people "who felt a little unnerved that this information is available," as he compared the "social pressure" aspect of the tool to the situation in other countries, such as Australia, that have compulsory voting and fines.

Since the official launch of the tool for Oregon on October 25, there have been nearly 6,700 users who sent almost 5,900 messages to around 4,800 other users, according to Jeff Lennan, a principal at Winning Mark, who added that he expected the numbers to be up around 15 percent higher by the end of the day Tuesday.

Lennan described the tool as an example of "turning your supporters into your salesforce" for which Facebook was a natural platform by allowing for viral communication. Lennan called special attention to improvement in and better integration of Facebook's messaging application this year. When campaigns tried to reach out to voters directly in the past, messages might often go directly into the "other" folder, he noted. "As Facebook has turned their messaging app more into a text or e-mail competitor, to get a message to pop up on their phone or pop up in their browser from an actual friend, [is] a real accomplishment for campaigns in terms of conversations around voting," he said. "It's getting literally a friend to message a friend, not like having campaign volunteer look at a list and make a phone call or try to message somebody or e-mail them.

He noted that there had been some reaction under the #didtheyvote hashtag of people of were not aware that such information was public or thinking it was private, even though it has been part of campaign get-out-the-vote efforts for decades. "There is a lot of back and forth [on Twitter] about the difference between how you vote versus if you've voted." But many Twitter comments also express the wish that a similar application should be available in other states or nationwide.

Cohen and Lennan expressed some concern about how upcoming changes to Facebook's login feature and API, aimed at improving user control, could impact future implementations of such tools, under which sharing of a user's friend list is no longer automatic when logging into an application. "Previously, when people logged into apps with Facebook, the app received their friend list by default. With the new version of Login, which we announced at f8 this April, people have the choice whether an app gets their friend list," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "They can select or deselect this permission when they log in. "

However, Cohen pointed out that under the changes, apps can only access the names of friends who are already using an app. "This particulate aspect kills apps like this," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. Facebook's initial news post announcing the changes does not specify that the friend list users can opt to share is not the entire friend list. Facebook's documentation for the login changes does note a new function called the "Taggable Friends API" which lets users tag friends who are not using the application if the app is submitted for review. Applications that function like games and have a presence on the Facebook platform can also allow users to send invite requests to other users.

In terms of its own voting tool, Facebook mapped the vote statuses as they were registered across the country, and also showed realtime statistics about the Facebook voting population, with a higher proportion just under 20 percent for women aged 25 to 34 and 35-44, while the proportions for men and women 18-24 were under 10 percent.

Meghan Peters from Facebook's news outreach team also shared that in the past 24 hours, the top topics of discussion related to the election were taxes, marijuana, Obamacare, education and the Islamic State. Th states with the most election-related conversation volume from July 10 to November 3 were California, Texas, Florida and New York, while the top by percentage of active Facebook users were Maine, Alaska, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. The top talked-about candidates in that time period were Florida Governor Rick Scott, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Senator Mitch McConnell.

This post has been updated with updated information.