Empathy and Elections: Tech Companies Empowering Local Officials
WASHINGTON — As Americans inch closer to the November midterm elections, the actual process comes to peoples’ minds more often, including tech companies that reach out with resources to help get people registered and spread the word to cast ballots.
“That’s really hard because that’s when elections officials are in crunch time,” said Katie Harbath, a tech and democracy fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, during an interview Thursday. “Elections are really more of a milestone in the overall civic cycle we go through.”
That’s why Harbath and research analyst Collier Fernekes conducted multiple roundtable discussions with elections officials and tech companies and released a report on how the two groups could better work together. Their findings: Everyone has a role to play and they should all plan early.
“Rapid, agile development is a point of pride for tech companies, but these just-in-time launches can hinder efforts to amplify correct election information,” they wrote in the report.
“We find that it takes a long and sustained effort to educate voters on the process and so starting only weeks ahead of Election Day does not give enough time to do just that. Long before voters think about an election, officials begin planning and executing administrative duties.”
Recently tensions have risen around elections and election officials have been targets of online harassment. There have also been disinformation campaigns spread through social media attempting to disqualify their work, all of which has heightened tension.
While finding a way to quell those issues, Fernekes and Harbath found part of the reason there has been friction between tech companies and local officials is because they hadn’t really talked. It was particularly apparent for elections officials with jurisdiction in smaller, more rural areas, they said.
Once they brought people to the same table, “there was a level of understanding that came up because some of these people haven’t talked or didn’t know who to reach out to,” Fernekes said during an interview Thursday.
Coming together, they saw empathy grow among officials.
“All of these people are trying to do the right thing,” Fernekes said.
Harbath came to the Bipartisan Policy Center after working for Facebook where she worked on democracy and elections-related issues. Utilizing her background with tech companies and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 15-year history of working across party lines, they were able to engage election officials of all stripes.
Despite different political affiliations, election officials generally, as a group, are nonpartisan, Fernekes said. “They work extremely hard to keep a level of integrity and let people know they are just there to help them vote.”
At the roundtable discussions election officials worked alongside tech officials to do threat assessment exercises to work through a variety of issues and come up with proactive recommendations each could take back to their own work.
Those recommendations are particularly important to the tech companies that appreciate “having something to rely on so it’s less of them sticking their necks out there,” Harbath said.
“It wasn’t that long ago campaigns were building their first websites,” Harbath said, recalling her work during the 2004 Bush campaign cycle. “Now is a time to learn from the past as they think ahead to the future, especially as it comes to restoring faith in American elections.
“Tech companies can be a force for good around elections. Their scale allows them to reach hundreds of millions of Americans, and their agility and resources enable them to adapt to emerging situations in real-time,” they wrote. “When working to their full potential, tech companies can connect Americans to their local governments, make the complex and varied processes around voting comprehensible and transparent, and help restore Americans’ faith in elections.”
As part of their research, they’ve made a database that catalogs how tech companies have worked on elections globally since 2003.
Despite politicians’ hesitancy to use social media in the days of Myspace and Friendster, social media now has become a ubiquitous asset of elections.
“We’re not going back,” Fernekes said. “This isn’t a train you can stop. You have to get on and see where the ride takes you.”
That’s why they want to foster the relationship between election officials and tech companies, and hope people reach out to them if they need help getting in contact with one another.
Building these relationships and creating plans before issues arise is especially important in the upcoming 2024 presidential election cycle where there are more than a dozen high-profile elections outside of the U.S. in India, the European Union and others, Harbath said.
“Making these connections [early] can lead to really good partnerships and you as an election official don’t have to be so stressed,” Fernekes said.
Madeline can be reached at email@example.com or @ByMaddieHughes
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