Maggie Shiels

The hi-tech election

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 4 Nov 08, 09:00 GMT

This election has relied on technology like never before to campaign, to get the vote out, to raise money, to harness volunteers and hopefully to return results as quickly as possible.

Mobile phoneBut it also seems that voters themselves are using technology as a way to ensure their vote is counted and their voices are heard. Yes even eight years on from the hanging chad debacle in Florida that left the 2000 election on a knife edge, people refuse to place their trust in the system.

The two services that are really being put to the test are the video sharing site YouTube and the microblogging service Twitter.

Already Twitter, which has had its share of problems with downed service times, seems to be performing well ahead of d-day on A stream of comments and observations from users are flooding in so fast there isn't time to read them properly. Think ticker tape on speed.

"Just received my fourth call from the Obama campaign. Yes we can," tweets one user while another notes; "John McCain doesn't run for history. He is history." And yet another tweet says: "Lonely McCain supporters getting shouted down in Times Square," to "Gotta go walk my dog. Be uncool but American Vote McCain."

Over at, there's the chance to see voting in action and get real time feeds from people across the country.

Nick Bergus tweets that: "There is a huge early-voting line at the North Liberty Community Centre (in Iowa City), and has been since voting opened."

While Sarah Braun says: "I voted at my kitchen table weeks ago, dropped my ballot at the Library, Oregon is awesome." And libertyisforme tweets: "Florida drama: election documents found on junction of 1-4, 1-275."

These tweets give an insight into the mood of the country and the voter and a view that makes you feel at the heart of things. Of course it's a view from a certain kind of voter in a certain part of the country, and sure it's hard to imagine the potato farmer from Idaho tweeting their comments.

Likewise, YouTube will also only present a certain point of view but it will probably turn out to be one of the biggest outlets for voters to have their say and even show themselves casting their ballot through the site's "Video your Vote" partnership. Collaborators include everyone from Rock the Vote to Voto Latino and from Citizen Media Law to the Centre for Governmental Studies.

Another major partner is PBS, the equivalent of the BBC stateside, where TV anchor Judy Woodruff explains some of the thinking behind the project.

"We are looking for videos that documents the excitement, energy and last second campaigning on Nov 4th in addition to the issues you find at voting places like long lines, broken machines and any other roadblocks to casting a ballot. Elections have never been perfect."

The site shows a map of the country and offers videos shot by voters themselves on their phones, their cameras and by various interested groups and organisations. They cover early voting, notable voter, voting perspectives, voter intimidation, polling place problems and registration problems and mostly they give a personal view of what it's like voting in what has been billed as one of the most historical elections ever.

And let's not forget all those mobile applications out there to keep voters in touch with every twist and turn of the election and polling day itself.

And while it certainly seems that technology is putting power back into the hands of the voter, take note because all these tools will be coming to an election near you.


  • Comment number 1.

    ..."eight years on from the hanging chad debacle in Florida that left the 2000 election on a knife edge, people refuse to place their trust in the system."

    How come that a nation with fine universities and a technological and industrial base that leads the world is apparently unable to deliver a reliable system for electing their national leader?

  • Comment number 2.

    That Onirus,

    Is because technology is only as perfect as the humans who create it, and our imperfections are what make us human.


  • Comment number 3.

    Is not just U.S.A. is it?

    Ask the UK computing fraternity why they cannot deliver crucial UK systems... over and over again.

    Computing is more than brains and education - imho, must also consider good 'ol in-the-trenches ditch-digger experience, sadly, a commodity which us 'old hands' could offer yet are rejected at the gates as being 'too old' - so be it :-)

    The Young Guns of each generation always think they know it all.
    Oh yes... let's not forget simple human frailties like ego, greed and plain 'just being dumb' at the wrong times!
    Oh... how I remember those decades -LOL

    BTW, is it not scary? that we many may be thinking [historically speaking] oh deary me... 'yet again' the wrong president got elected due to errrrm 'voting irregularities'

    I actually feel vip nervous about the outcome simply because the world may well suffer - imho, all of us are at a very seminal phase in history - course this too has been said many times also ;)

    Roller coaster stuff or what?

  • Comment number 4.

    Considering my grandad has a hard enough time trying to understand the difference between Cable TV and Freeview, DVD disks and HDD and seems almost entirely incapable of using a simple TV remote even though 50 years ago he was taking Spitfire Merlin engines apart in his sleep, I think there are times that "old hands" should perhaps step back and stop meddling as I think that, especialy in the IT industry right now, it is these people making the errors and holding back the technology. Of course, no offense there EagleRock :)

    It will be the same older generations that refuse to place their trust in electronic voting when it hits the UK in a few years; the same people that are still un-willing to use ATM machines and instead spend hours queing at under-staffed desks in banks - and on the occasion they do use the ATM, they spend 20 minutes trying to figure it out while those who have grown up with then draw our money out in 3 or 4 quick presses of a button.

    Not being ageist here, but when you have grown up in a world where the most advanced computer was a simple calculater, you are obviously always going to prefer pen and paper. For those of us that have grown up in the computer revolution, we see no real reason why it can't be trusted; and until people of that age control the industry, the industry will continue to be pragmatic and un-trusted.

  • Comment number 5.

    too right. I remember getting an earful in a restaurant from my grandad (RIP) when i tried to help him with a chip and pin machine (he was pressing the wrong buttons). I also got told off for using the sky EPG and not the radio times. This was a man who flew bombers over germany, a feat i could never do (or hope to achieve, of course).
    I would hope to be able to trust an electronic voting system as it would promote speedier and easier voting. Just as long it is a heavily tried and tested system and is independantly proven to be.

  • Comment number 6.

    1. Onirus wrote:

    "How come that a nation with fine universities and a technological and industrial base that leads the world is apparently unable to deliver a reliable system for electing their national leader? "

    Or more correctly a category of voters able to punch out a piece of perforated paper by the candidates names. Never had this problem when my ballots from California used this method.

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't understand why elections have to be high tech.

    I want a piece of paper with all the candidates names on, with an empty box right beside their name and a pencil.

    Why on earth wopuld anyone trust computers with something so important?

  • Comment number 8.

    Not that hi-tech! I've just watched Obama take 20 minutes to cast his vote. Could they make it more complicated? No wonder people are having to stand in line for 8 hours! Three cheers for little bits of paper and a stub of pencil!

  • Comment number 9.

    I work in the IT industry as a young professional and I am not convinced I would trust a computer system to cast votes. How do you test a system that needs to be able to take 301,139,947 votes on a single day.

    Obviously it could be phased and rolled out over the next 5 elections etc,etc but when its so important I think Pen and paper rules.

    Also I cannot even begin to imagine the cost of a computer system which can deliver this, It may be in the pipeline already, who knows but do not underestimate the amount of work/money/time it would cost to design/implement a system capable of performing such a task.

    there are times where you have to take a step back and think is it really worth it?

  • Comment number 10.

    Here's an alternative 'high-tec' solution. In the world of google maps and satellite imagery, just give every househould in the nation a pot of red paint and a pot of blue paint. Then they paint the roof of their house, and reds vs blues get counted from the sky. Instant readout for the whole nation - simple majority rules, without all the political boudaries.

    Obvious problem in that the homeless don't get a vote, but its a start...

  • Comment number 11.

    What do you mean high-tech? Your headlines keep calling the poll 'historic'!

  • Comment number 12.

    Its not a question of "does voting really need to be hi-tech", its more a question of convinience.

    What is more convinient to you? Walking down to your nearest election base, filling in a bit of paper and then stuffing it in a box, or simply pulling out your mobile phone, plugging in a 6-digit number and then add the letters "VOTE CON" and press send? Or log onto a website, tick a box and hit send? Or press the red button, select a box and hit "OK"?

    The technology behind it isn't what makes this an important step. It is the fact that it opens up voting to:

    a) People that are physicaly unable to attend a voting station
    b) People that don't have the time to spend 30 minutes or more to vote
    c) People that are simply unwilling to travel to their nearest voting station.

    Convinience is the all important word in the modern world.

    As for whether the technology is in place to actually handle it? I think the only real valid question is whether the technology is in place to make it secure, because there is certainly no question as to whether it is technologicaly possible to hold voting entirely electronicaly.

  • Comment number 13.

    In the UK we are used to a ballot paper having at most 12 or so names to chose from, often many less.
    Seems to me that the reason it takes 20 mins in the booth is because in USA there are dozens of questions on a ballot paper that can be several pages long. Its not just a question of ticking box for BO or McC. There are loads of other questions about voting for all the major State positions and even referendum questions about the old chestnuts on death penalty, abortions etc that all get incorporated into that states law.
    Ive been looking at the ballot paper in Ohio from their online Election office website.
    It takes you 20 minutes just to read it all properly. No wonder there are queues.

  • Comment number 14.

    This new microsite that Tropicana created with my employer, New Media Strategies, collates all the tweets about the election in a really interesting way. It shows frequency and context of election-related terms, live as they happen. Consider it a living information graphic: the picture changes over time as the conversation develops over time. The site will pull a continuous stream of tweets mentioning Obama and McCain. Each tweet is examined for certain key words and phrases. You can make it show what you want: show only tweets about Obama or McCain, about both, or about one but not the other.

    Check it out here:


  • Comment number 15.

    gp, thanks for the link - nice work.
    Being an oldie, I of course do not understand what looking at. Any links/info on interpretations? viz: Dummys Guide to tweets - 'the graphical way'...
    yep, vip analysis tools out there, for sure :)

  • Comment number 16.

    VampiricHoshi wrote: "For those of us that have grown up in the computer revolution, we see no real reason why it can't be trusted;"

    As a young engineer with an interest in electronic security I can see many reasons electronic voting can't be trusted: verifying what's inside the machine, what software it is running and the security of getting the information back to be counted is not trivial. I'm not sure I'd trust the average polling station volunteer to competently assess whether an electronic machine has been tampered with.

    The current system of paper in boxes is guaranteed by the cheap and plentiful application of an overwhelming number of eyeballs. As long as enough election monitors distrust each other, and they can understand the engineering principles behind a box with a lock on it, this will continue to be an excellent solution.

  • Comment number 17.

    Dear friends. How about a rapid reading?
    How Brazil has put an 'e' in vote.
    You will know how to do.

  • Comment number 18.

    To find a polling place to vote, to get involved, or to see where you are registered, visit:

  • Comment number 19.

    it was a very hi-tech was a very good thing.

  • Comment number 20.

    Really interesting post!


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites