Last Friday I was invited to speak at a conference put on by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, titled "Voting Goes Viral: Using New Media to Manage an Election and Communicate with Voters."
The conference, which included officials from electoral institutions (including Alysoun McLaughlin from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics), policy experts, academics, and journalists, sought to explore how new media and social networking have affected elections, both in terms of campaigns and the actual process of putting on an election.
A lot was discussed, but below are some of the basic points I brought up:
It's Not Yet Clear That New Media and Social Networks Have Changed Local Elections: Though the number and type of people using social networks like Twitter and Facebook are on the rise, I argued that it's tough to claim that either one has really re-defined how campaigns are run or has encouraged new people to vote in local elections.
Take the District's recent elections, for example. In last year's mayoral primary, the guy who was probably liked by the sorts of people that most actively use Twitter and Facebook (Mayor Adrian Fenty, that is) didn't have much of a new media strategy at all, nor did his well-connected supporters prove numerous or influential enough to swing the primary in his favor. (Mayor Vince Gray, on the other hand, had a very active Twitter account, though the majority of his supporters likely weren't active Twitter users.) I argued that while things might be changing, participation and preference in the District are still moved primarily by traditional associations like church groups, civic organizations, etc. As for the April 26 Special Election, well, for all the noise we tried to make on Twitter (including a dedicated hashtag, #four26dc), turnout was pretty much what would have been expected for a special election.
Twitter and Facebook may be fantastic tools for spreading information and making connections, but they're still relatively unproven quantities when it comes to how campaigns use them (if at all), if they help shape people's perceptions of specific races or if they can encourage new groups to cast ballots.
Twitter is a Great Institutional Tool: Both McLaughlin and I (not to mention other election officials) spoke about how Twitter is a wonderful tool for electoral organizations to use.
I see two principal benefits: Twitter can be used to detail and de-mystify the whole process of how elections come to be and serve as a means by which residents and voters interact with their electoral institution. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics effectively used the tool to unpack the entire special election process (listing which candidates had turned in nominating petitions, for example, or listing changes to polling places), not to mention respond to resident concerns regarding voter registration, etc.
I stressed that any electoral institution that uses Twitter or Facebook needs to use it as tool to converse with its friends and followers, not simply bark messages at them. And even though the number of people following D.C. BOEE on Twitter is small relative to the number of registered voters (under 1,000 followers, over 450,000 registered voters), the type of people that follow the agency and the ability they have to quickly re-tweet messages to their own followers means that important news and information can quickly spread to the people that need it most.
Twitter Doesn't Make for Transparency: Though Twitter and Facebook are easy to use and can contribute greatly to transparency, they won't serve as a substitute for actual transparency. An opaque electoral institution that uses Twitter doesn't become any more open, accountable or transparent just because it's using it. Twitter and Facebook can amplify existing transparency, not create it.
We also discussed how Twitter has changed the dynamic of reporting on the results of elections, both for better and for worse. It's great that anyone can tweet results from their local precinct before the votes are uploaded to the BOEE website on election night, but it certainly makes for a confusing crush of partial results and speculation as all votes are tallied.
All of this having been said, it should be interesting to see how Twitter, Facebook and other services and tools play into the coming 2012 D.C. elections. I'm going to be watching to see not only which campaigns actively use social media, but also which ones actually get social media. I'm also curious to see if both can be more effectively used to shape people's opinions and drive individuals that wouldn't otherwise vote to the ballot box. I think we'll see some more movement than we did in 2010, but not nearly as much as we'll see in 2014, 2016 and so on.
We all know how the April 26 At-Large Special Election turned out, and most of us know how the vote broke down -- Vincent Orange won wards 4, 5, 7, and 8; Patrick Mara claimed wards 2, 3 and 6; Bryan Weaver took his homebase of Ward 1.
Sometimes, though, it's easiest to see things mapped out, and for that we've got D.C. for Democracy's Keith Ivey to thank. He mapped out the voting breakdown by precinct for each candidate, with a darker shade indicating a higher proportion of the vote. He also looked at which candidate won a plurality of the votes in each precinct and mapped those together according to campaign color -- Orange gets orange, Weaver green, Mara blue, and Biddle a shade of red.
All told, a great way to bring together geography and election dorks.
And just when you thought this blog was done with (I thought so too!), there's more out there that's relevant and worth discussing. This time around: what we've learned from the April 26 At-Large Special Election that could help make changes moving forward.
Keith Ivey has some ideas worth considering, which he tweeted today. Generally, I agree that the interim appointment for the At-Large seat is somewhat troublesome. There's no such appointment for a ward-based seat, and those are arguably more important in terms of direct resident representation. We should either allow appointments for both, or not have appointments for either. Given how the process played out this January when Sekou Biddle won the appointment in a contested vote of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, I would say we scrap the appointments completely. Heck, I think Biddle would agree, given how things turned out.
A few articles worth noting, post-Four/26:
- The Post's Mike DeBonis and Tim Craig predict that Vincent Orange's victory will cause a stalemate on the D.C. Council.
- The City Paper's Alan Suderman analyzes the results of the election, and comes up with this: Orange may well be positioning himself for another run at the council's top spot.
- Greater Greater Washington notes that being appointed to the D.C. Council seems to be the political equivalent of the kiss of death.
- In one of Orange's first comments after his victory, he was already complaining about his likely office in the Wilson Building. (I've been there, for the record, and it's perfectly fine.)
- After the way the election shaped up, many are asking: is it time for Instant Runoff Voting?
- D.C. Watch's Gary Imhoff seems to think that the "racial divide in politics in this city is exaggerate." Looking at the way the vote broke down, I don't think that's true. Only Sekou Biddle and Josh Lopez had any real crossover appeal. Patrick Mara, Bryan Weaver and Orange all appealed to very distinct and very different demographics. Also, the final days of campaigning again included some thinly-veiled references to race, so it's hard to underestimate the role it played on how Four/26 turned out.
Cross-posted at DCist.com
It's all said and done -- Vincent Orange won the April 26 At-Large Special Election and will be heading back to the D.C. Council. As usual, we've got some closing thoughts on the last D.C. election until, well, eleven months from now.
Orange Was One of the Few Known Candidates: The only public poll of the campaign pretty much called it -- Orange could win, if only because he was the best-known candidate in an under-publicized race that ended up attracting fewer than 10 percent of registered voters. The late March Clarus poll put Orange ahead citywide 28 percent to six percent each for Biddle and Mara, with the margin only growing amongst black voters. Needless to say, having run citywide in 2006 and 2010 and having served two terms on the D.C. Council made Orange one of the few recognizable names on the ballot.
Well, that's a wrap. Considering that this blog was dedicated exclusively to documenting the April 26 At-Large Special Election, I've essentially run out of things to actually document. I'm sure there will be post-election thoughts to share, but in the coming weeks all that will be left of this blog is the archives. That being said, and as always, there are things I learned in the process that are worth sharing and using to inform any similar projects down the road.
- Despite appearing obsessed to any and all that call me a friend or a loved one, this was absolutely worth the time and trouble. I learned more about local politics and how elections actually happen than I could have imagined, and I hope that was effectively communicated through the blog. The overriding lesson I'm taking away is that you can only really get a sense of a candidate from seeing how he or she evolves over the course of a campaign. After a few forums, I found myself being able to recite candidate talking points before they could, but as the months wore on and I attended more events across the city, I started to get a better sense of their personalities and political styles. Obviously, I took the time and was afforded the chance to be obsessive about this, so that evolution became evident to me and helped inform my writing and analysis. Not everyone can do the same, making projects like this that much more useful to a regular voter with a job, kids and responsibilities.
- But...this can't be a one-person project next time around. I'd love to do this again, and seeing as there's a primary less than a year from now, I can see it happening. Just not alone. I missed any number of events and couldn't get to any number of stories or leads (sorry!) because there simply wasn't enough time, especially considering that I have a day-job and spent the last four months planning a wedding. (I'm certainly not trying to make excuses, but rather admit limitations.) Thankfully, there are a ton of talented writers, activists and concerned residents to make the next stab at this a joint project with more voices, more content, more reach, and more diversity of opinions and experiences.
- There's nothing that I did here that an established media outlet with more readers and broader distribution couldn't do. Turnout in Special Elections is so low for a variety of reasons, but I don't think we should discount a big one -- not even the media is particularly interested. Less than 10 percent of D.C. voters actually cast ballots yesterday. That's pathetic. If residents didn't know an election was coming, we can blame them for not being engaged, but we should also blame ourselves for not being engaging. I'm not pointing fingers, and I know I share in the blame as a self-appointed journalist/blogger/pundit -- but we can all do more, and we can do it better.
- There's certainly glory in winning an election, but I don't think the shit that candidates have to put up with in that process is recognized often enough. Candidates, campaign workers and volunteers are, by and large, hard-working, under-appreciated and sincerely committed to a better city. In the process of trying to communicate their message and gain votes, they sacrifice themselves to unforgiving schedules and unrelenting criticism, much of it from smart-asses like myself. For that, they deserve a beer, a handshake and, where appropriate, an apology.
- Big, big, big props to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. Other criticisms aside, the staff I dealt with was courteous, professional and committed to making sure the April 26 Special Election went off without a hitch. When you consider that the board was forced to work within an uncertain budget and under relatively severe scrutiny from what happened in last year's elections, it did as much as possible to make sure that everyone who wanted to vote could do so.
That's about all for now, but there's likely more to come this week. I still want to digest the numbers and talk to a few people about how the election played out, but for now I'll leave these personal thoughts as something of a sign-off. Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting and thanks for participating.
Vincent Orange will return to the D.C. Council after a five-year absence after narrowly defeating Republican Patrick Mara for the At-Large seat once occupied by Council Chair Kwame Brown.
Orange claimed just over 28 percent of all votes cast, with Mara coming in at close to 26 percent. Sekou Biddle, who was appointed to the seat by the D.C. Democratic State Committee in January, ran third with 20 percent, Bryan Weaver had 13 percent, and Josh Lopez seven percent. Turnout only slightly exceeded 12 percent. (The Post has a good report here.)
There's likely to be any number of narratives tomorrow, but one thing is clear -- Orange won on the strength of his performance in wards 5, 7 and 8, where he claimed between 55 and 66 percent of the vote. He also led in Ward 4, denying Biddle his home base. Mara performed most strongly in Ward 3 with 49 percent of the vote, but also led in ward 2 and 6. Weaver took Ward 1.
Orange, who ran for mayor in 2006 and Council Chair in 2010 against Brown, is known citywide and was able to raise almost three times the amount of money as any of his competitors. Biddle, who defeated Orange in the contested January appointment process, couldn't seem to escape his associations to Brown and Mayor Vince Gray or truly endear himself to voters who saw in Mara a true independent voice for the council. Despite Mara's loss, his strong performance and position on the State Board of Education means that he'll remain an important figure in years to come.
The results aren't final, but Mara has conceded. Orange won't have much time to settle in, though -- he'll face a Democratic primary in April 2012, giving him only a few months before someone jumps in to challenge him.
All of the numbers we've been seeing over Twitter seems to indicate that turnout is very low so far. There are still five hours left until polls close, though, and the post-work rush may provide a needed boost, but it's not looking too good.
The Post's Mike DeBonis reports that turnout in the western fringes of the District is higher than in the east, meaning that Patrick Mara and Sekou Biddle are feeling somewhat relieved while Vincent Orange is probably starting to pace anxiously. The again, the D.C. GOP just tweeted, "We need your vote," so maybe there's a sense within Mara's campaign that he's not getting the votes he needs to win.
At this point, it's best to wait until results start rolling in. Polls close at 8 p.m., and I'll be at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics from that point on to see the votes as they arrive to be tallied.
Cross-posted at DCist.com
Okay, so we're about a third of the way through the voting day, and there appears to be a good chance that you haven't cast your ballot yet. Reports coming in from around the city indicate the turnout has been light -- so unless everyone is waiting to vote after work (polls are open until 8 p.m.), we're looking at another Special Election with sparse participation. We did our best to summarize the context and candidates of the At-Large election in our Voter Guide yesterday, but it might be worth it to lay out the very good reasons that you should head to a polling place today.
- Your Vote Really Counts: You hear this all the time, but it's probably more true today than ever before. Turnout in special elections has historically ranged from five to 25 percent, and the winner of one of these contests could well be determined by a tiny proportion of votes. Back in 1997, Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) claimed a win with only 10,818 votes, just over 1,000 more than second-place finisher Arrington Dixon. Only four candidates fought for the seat, and turnout was a meager 7.5 percent. This time around, we've got nine candidates on the ballot, six of them Democrats. Votes are splintering along ideological, demographic, geographic and issue-based lines -- but no one can accurately predict how. Your vote counts. Really.
- Their Vote Really Counts: As soon as the winner of this Special Election is announced, they'll jump straight into the unforgiving business of debating and amending Mayor Vince Gray's 2012 budget, which slashed funding for many social services and hiked taxes on the city's highest-earners in order to close a $322 million budget gap. The D.C. Council is closely divided between those that want tax increases and those opposed; a single vote could swing the decision either way. Bryan Weaver, Josh Lopez and Alan Page have supported tax hikes in one form or another, while Sekou Biddle, Vincent Orange, Patrick Mara, Dorothy Douglas and Tom Brown have been skeptical. If you feel strongly either way, your vote will count towards making their vote count.
- You Can Send a Strong Message: Let's be honest -- it hasn't been a particularly good few months in D.C. politics. We've had far too many scandals in far too short a time, and it's easy to see why many residents are becoming more and more cynical about the state of local affairs. Many of the candidates are running on a message of independence, integrity and accountability -- all things that seem to be in short supply these days. Weaver has pledged to clean up how campaign finances are raised, while Mara has emphasized stricter controls on how the government spends its money. Page, Lopez, Mara and Weaver have said that they would be full-time councilmembers, and many of the candidates have said that they would support cutting their own pay (currently at $125,000 a year) and instituting term limits. Voting in this election sends a message that things aren't hunky-dory and that you're not willing to wait until 2014 and the next mayoral contest until things change.
- It's the Last Time You'll Get to Vote for Vincent Orange: Who are we kidding? The man hasn't met an elected office he wouldn't run for.
- You Can Vote for a Republican: Republicans have run for and held office in the District for years, but it's also been a long time since a Republican formally sat on the D.C. Council. This may be the year that changes. Mara has come along at the right time and sounded the right campaign themes to make himself a serious contender for the seat. His emphasis on good government and strong opposition to any tax hikes has won him plaudits from many that are sick of ethical lapses and out-of-control government spending. Better yet, he's anything but a traditional Republican -- he's certainly not socially conservative, and the man lives in Columbia Heights, not exactly a red hideaway in an overwhelmingly blue city. Ironically, it was Mara himself that knocked the last remaining Republican off of the Council in 2008, when he beat Carol Schwartz in a hotly-contested primary. (Mara then lost the general election to Councilmember Michael Brown, a lifelong Democrat who dumped his party affiliation in order to run for one of the two At-Large seats on the council that are set aside for minority parties.)
- This is What Little Democracy We Get: If this were 1972, you wouldn't even get to vote for a member of the D.C. Council, much less a mayor. The 1973 Home Rule Act enshrined what little local democracy we have, allowing residents to actually choose who would govern them. Sure, Congress can overrule it whenever it pleases, but we should cherish an opportunity that District residents 40 years ago didn't even have.
If you don't know where you vote, check the D.C. Board of Election and Ethics. Polls are open until 8 p.m., though they won't shut their doors if you're standing in line. Not registered? No problem -- bring a D.C. ID or proof of residence (like a utility bill) and you can register on the spot.