The Conundrum of the Smartphone

With smartphones starting as low as $40, it’s hard to remember what life was like before mobile devices dominated our lives. In combination with a data plan, integrating our social and virtual lives is as easy as touching a simple button. While social media apps and ridiculous time wasting games like Fruit Ninja are a saving grace, can mobile technology go beyond entertaining hip, young urbanites during their morning commute? Can mobile devices advance democracy and engage voters like never before? The answer-kinda, sorta.

In the digital age no one can deny the immense power of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Coupled with mobile devices such as the Droid, iPhone and various other wireless tablets, these social media powerhouses have the capability to reach largely untapped demographics. Reasons ranging from product marketing to voter engagement, advertisers have incredible incentives to target and cater to these groups. Recent studies have shown that within the last few years smartphone ownership has increased dramatically rising from 14% in 2008 to over one thirdi. At its present rate, sometime this year mobile devices are expected to outnumber personal computers with 83% of device users as registered votersii. With this in mind, political strategists are reaching out to potential voters through mobile apps, texting and advertising.

While mobile tech is rapidly advancing, this isn’t the first time campaign managers and advisers are using new mediums to engage the public. Back in 2008, text messaging was the most prominent platform for mobile outreach, allowing campaign staff to send voters live updates on issues, media and appearances. Today, updates to supporters include access to sites compatible to mobile devices, videos, comment features, ads and other information sharing tools. Scott Brown’s 2010 senatorial campaign enabled voter to engage in rapid response; the campaign sent contact information of radio shows that, then opponent, Martha Coakley would be appearing on. Delivering quick and concise information, Brown’s supporters were able to bombarded Coakley with questions regarding her campaign. Undoubtedly, these features have transformed how people organize and respond to the issues they are most concerned about.

In addition to changing how fast one can respond, text messaging has changed how the American public can respond. After natural disasters such as the Haitian earthquake and Japanese tsunami, millions of dollars were raised by those willing to text phrases such as “HAITI” or “REDCROSS” to specified numbers. Similar to online shopping, donations through mobile devices are based on spontaneous decision making. A recent study by the Pew Research Center discovered that 74% of first time donors to the Haiti campaign did so without much thoughtiii. If impulsive giving is like impulsive shopping during online flash sales, political candidates have the potential to strike rich.

Though the potential is there, the institutions surrounding campaign contributions are lagging far behind. While state level campaigns are given some leeway on whether they can accept text message funds, federal candidates are barred from doing so. California and Maryland currently allows state campaigns to accept contributions however, Maryland residents are limited to $10 donations. Nationally, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) does not allow federal candidates to accept text message donations arguing doing so would corrode current campaign finance laws that require donors to provide personal information. In the end, the issue of campaign contributions through text messages pits consumer privacy issues against federal election transparency issues.

It’s obvious that portable devices can, and have, transformed how people work, communicate and organize. While it’s clear that these phones and tablets will play a role in future political processes, it is important to consider the negative consequences that could arise. As society embraces technology, it’s imperative that we not only ask who is being targeted for political engagement, but also who is not. The potential for increased voter engagement is phenomenal, but mobile technology could have an adverse effect on those who are already disenfranchised from the voting system. Can devices bridge the gap between those who already actively participate in the system and those who don’t? Or, will mobile technology drive a deeper wedge between the two? As a democratic society we must remember not to leave out others during election season and that tools, like mobile devices, should be used to encourage and engage all voters into the political discourse.

Ideally, using portable devices would streamline the voting process however, various concerns prevent this electronic pathway from being seen in the foreseeable future. With numerous security breaches, lagging legislation and the lack of universal mobile device usage, waiting to vote from our phones is like waiting for our files to download with one bar; slow, but still possible in about fifty years. Mobile technology may still be in its infancy but its practical functions in elections and campaigns today are endless. When that day comes, who wouldn’t want to vote from the convenience of their home, workplace or sandwich line in the cafeteria? If we can vote for the next American Idol from our phones, why not the next American president?


iDarrell M. West, “Ten Facts about Mobile Broadband”, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, December 8, 2011. The 2008 numbers come from Campaigns & Elections, “What’s Next for Mobile?” undated.

iiLauren DeLisa Coleman, “2012 Candidates Playing Catchup With Mobile Tech-Savvy Voters,” Huffington Post, September 12, 2011 and John Chang.

iiiAaron Smith, “Real Time Charitable Giving,” Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project, January 12, 2012.