- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2016

For the first time, elections officials — and federal courts — are having to grapple with The Selfie.

Some states have moved to ban taking photos of marked ballots, while others say it’s OK. Federal judges have even become involved, though they are no more unified than the states, splitting on whether a millennial voter’s First Amendment rights protect the ballot selfie.

Whatever the courts rule, the fact that selfies are a part of the conversation is the latest indication that the digital election, after years of promise, has finally come to pass. From voters watching primary season debates on smartphones to volunteers carrying iPads as they knock on doors, the internet has changed the way campaigns run and how the electorate votes.

But this is also the first year that the news itself was about what happened in cyberspace — from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s 3 a.m. Twitter habit to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s secret email server and her campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails, which have given the public an extraordinary, and sometimes troubling, look at the inner workings of government and campaigns.

“The digital evolution has always been about trying to find out more about the voters. The trove of WikiLeaks and Trump’s oversharing — now we know more about the candidates,” said Patrick Hynes, president of Hynes Communications, one of the leading Republican Party firms in the digital campaign world.

It’s been two decades since the first presidential campaigns had websites, Howard Dean showed campaigns how to harness the web for fundraising in 2004, and Barack Obama built his electoral machine on the backs of internet-savvy millennials in 2008.

But digital was a niche, consigned to desktops. It wasn’t until the smartphone took the internet out of the office and into the streets that campaigns figured out that they could get to voters in more places and at more times.

Politically weaponized

DSPolitical, a Democratic digital firm, said it is able to geolocate people who are at polling locations and target them for in-app ads. That means people waiting to vote, or even those who are in the polling booth but still looking at their mobile devices, can be persuaded.

Designed to target ads to shoppers in particular stores, the technology can be harnessed by candidates to get out last-minute messages or to get their names in front of voters, said Jim Walsh, co-founder of DSPolitical.

“It enables us to just hammer ads inside that area to people that we know for a fact are voters because they’re inside that geofence,” Mr. Walsh said of his company’s tool, dubbed the “Last Word.”

It’s another way that digital, rather than replacing the traditional campaign, has taken those efforts to a new level: the political weaponization of the internet.

Volunteers out knocking on doors can now shoot ads onto smartphones in neighborhoods so those who answer the door are already primed, Mr. Walsh said. Where ads used to be confined to television or radio, they now follow voters onto their desktop or laptop computers and on their phones, turning the campaign from sporadic contacts into a continuous experience.

“The real sea change was when we were able to make the pitch to campaigns that you could use the same tactics you used offline for years and years and years,” Mr. Walsh said.

Television ads still dominate political media spending, but digital is growing.

Perhaps $1 billion will be spent on digital ads across all campaigns this year, six times more than in 2012, and accounting for one-tenth of ad spending, according to industry projections. For presidential campaigns, digital is an even bigger part of their media budgets.

Where broadcast ads are targeted by show, digital ads can be directed much more narrowly.

“With every cycle, we get more info and we can break that info down into more chunks so we can find out more about voters,” Mr. Hynes said. “Really what they’ve managed to do is make TV more affordable.”

Amid all the strides, however, Democrats still embrace the digital campaign more than Republicans. Mr. Hynes said the GOP still has “a huge wall of resistance” to using the internet to its potential.

“Ultimately, Republicans want to put bland focus-grouped messaging that is roughly 30 seconds long on media that is designed for shorter, pithier, more blunt advertising,” he said.

Mr. Trump has challenged that orthodoxy within the Republican Party, but his unorthodox and unscripted approach also turned off many Republicans. Mr. Hynes said he hopes Republican campaigns learn the right lessons from Mr. Trump.

Cybervoting

One area where digital has yet to penetrate is the actual act of voting. Save for a few small tests, online voting has never materialized.

The Utah Republican Party allowed online voting in its presidential caucuses this year, and about 30,000 of the 190,000 or so who participated cast their votes online. But some voters struggled with the system, believing they were registered when the party said they weren’t, while others couldn’t locate the personal identification numbers they were to use to cast their votes.

Election groups also questioned whether the system was secure enough.

That has been a major question across the country where state and local elections boards have been warned by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to seek help in protecting their systems from outsiders, including foreign governments that the U.S. has fingered as trying to meddle.

Top U.S. officials have even blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the hacks that purloined tens of thousands of email messages from John Podesta, a longtime Clinton family friend and current chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

Those emails, along with tens of thousands from Mrs. Clinton’s secret account she used during her time at the State Department, have dented the Democratic nominee in the public’s eyes.

Over the past two weeks, Mrs. Clinton had to sit on pins and needles as the FBI announced that it had recovered messages from the laptop shared by her top personal aide Huma Abedin and Ms. Abedin’s estranged husband, Anthony D. Weiner.

FBI Director James B. Comey initially said the messages might be pertinent to the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s mishandling of classified information, then on Sunday said a flash review had turned up no smoking guns.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump damaged himself with his online presence, firing off retweets of white supremacists or using his 13-million-strong Twitter account to attack his enemies. The damage was so great that The New York Times reported this week that his advisers finally wrested control of the account away from him — a claim his campaign denied.

For now, digital pitfalls are far more a factor in presidential races than they are in down-ticket races, Mr. Hynes said.

But voters themselves are more active online, posting their comments, sharing news, interacting with campaigns and inserting themselves into the races in their unique ways — which ends up with the debate over selfies.

More than a dozen states outlaw taking photos of ballots in the voting booth, forcing the issue into federal courts.

One judge court in New York last week upheld that state’s law banning voters from showing their marked ballots to anyone else. But further up Interstate 95, a federal appeals court in September overturned New Hampshire’s selfie-ban, rejecting the state’s fears of vote-buying or coercion, and said millennials who express themselves by snapping photos of their votes are protected by the First Amendment.

“A ban on selfies would suppress a large swath of political speech,” Judge Sandra L. Lynch wrote. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

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