On Tuesday, the state of Washington made a historic step to blend social media technology with a social activity (if not duty) that has been popular for centuries--voting. Washingtonians will be able to register to vote via Facebook. The actual mechanics of this process do not differ much from current online voter registration in Washington. However, the integration of social media and voter registration is a innovative move that will increase democratic participation.
Washington plans to unveil program, which Facebook and Microsoft developed at no cost to the state, as early as next week. Shane Hamlin, the state's co-director of elections, explained how Washington will integrate voter registration into Facebook. The Washington State Elections Facebook page and the Secretary of State’s page will feature an app with which Facebook users can register to vote. Once a user initiates the app, that user’s name and birthday (according to their self-entered Facebook information) will be transmitted to Washington’s MyVote page, which the state has used to register voters online since 2008. With that data (which will be modifiable in case of Facebook pseudonyms, etc.) pulled from one’s Facebook onto MyVote, the user will be able to complete the MyVote form as if they were doing so on the official website. That entails providing a Washington state ID or driver’s license number, an address, an affirmation of U.S. citizenship, and the completion of a CAPTCHA. The only difference between using the Facebook app and using MyVote on its own site is that the app operates within the frame of a Facebook page and from the domain facebook.com. However, the information entered through the app will be neither collected nor stored by Facebook. An example of an app that operates within Facebook’s frame is the popular game, Words with Friends.
There are myriad benefits to the utilization of Facebook for voter registration. First, users will be able to share and ‘like’ the voter registration app as they can other Facebook pages. This means that someone who sees that their friend registered to vote on Facebook will do it, too. Second, it will make voter registration seamless for the millions of Washingtonians who have Facebook, half of whom check it daily. Young people, who use Facebook ubiquitously, stand to benefit even more from Facebook voter registration. On one hand, in 2008, a year in which the election saw unprecedented participation from youth, hardly fifty percent of eligible 18-24 year-olds in Washington registered to vote. But of those young people that did register, 87% voted. Having voter registration accessible through Facebook will no doubt increase the registration and voting rates of young people. Even when someone who would have registered in person chooses to register on Facebook, the state will save $.25 and counties will save between $.50 and $2.00 per person.
"As social media, or web 2.0, continues to grow it's important to recognize its impact on the people we serve," said Secretary of State Sam Reed. "Government is here for the people and finding new ways to reach out to the citizens it serves is crucial to transparency and trust," he added in his 2007 statement about the launching of the Washington State Elections Facebook group. In light of the democratic movements happening around the world today, it hardly needs mentioning that new media such as Facebook provides public spaces that can serve a civic function. Thus, the State of Washington has put itself on the right side of history by being at the vanguard of online voter registration. Washington’s Facebook app requires no less information than standard voter registration and does not compromise the privacy of voter registrants. Hopefully the Facebook app will be adopted by other states sooner rather than later; ultimately it seems inevitable.