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The Participatory Panopticon at the Polls

The outcome of tomorrow's election in the US may be decided by cell phones. I don't just mean the percentage of voters who, by using a mobile phone as their primary voice number, don't factor into the pre-election polls. I mean the percentage of voters who carry a cameraphone and are willing to use it. As we've discussed here before, network-connected digital cameras and wireless cameraphones are fundamental tools of the second superpower.

Republicans and Democrats alike fear the possibility of disruptions at polling places driving some voters away before getting a chance to vote. Protesters, armed "guards," discriminatory voter challenges -- all have the possibility of intimidating or even actively preventing voters from casting their ballots. Such problems are by no means new. What is new is the ability of individual citizens to document voter harassment, and even to let others know about it almost instantly.

If there are problems at the polls tomorrow -- anything from electioneering too close to the polling booths to out-and-out violence -- you can be certain that we won't just hear stories from witnesses, we'll be able to see proof. Websites (such as Video Vote Vigil) have been set up as clearinghouses of citizen documentation of voting problems. Some of the pictures and videos will come from people who have chosen to arm themselves with regular cameras specifically to be able to record possible abuses, or in order to act as citizen journalists. But some will come from regular people who have pocket digital cameras and cameraphones and who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Credit-card-sized digital cameras can take sharp, high resolution pictures for later uploading. Cameraphones make up in alacrity what they may lack in resolution -- with many mobile services, you can take a picture and immediately send it off in email, making it impossible for thugs unhappy that their tactics are being recorded to get rid of the evidence.

Cameraphones and pocket digital cameras have another advantage over traditional cameras: they are less likely to themselves be seen as a form of intimidation. People waiting in line to vote have no real way to know whether a small crowd standing off to the side with camcorders is there to protect their rights or violate them. Cameraphones kept snugly in one's pocket pose no such problem, and can still be whipped out to take a shot (and possibly send it off) at a moment's notice.

We all hope that tomorrow's election is a hallmark of democracy and citizenship, and that problems of intimidation, harassment or even violence are few. If things go poorly, however, it will likely be the millions of cameraphone and pocket digital camera users who will be documenting the trouble. Voting is our most important right as citizens -- and we as citizens now have the tools at hand to protect it.

Update: As expected, cameraphones are being used to document problems. Lisa Rein has a perfect example of this up right now -- a camphone photo of an error message on an electronic voting machine. Check it out.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Participatory Panopticon at the Polls:

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Pronto -- probablemente dentro de la próxima década, ciertamente dentro de la próximas dos -- estaremos viviendo en un mundo donde lo que veamos, lo que escuchemos, lo que experimentemos será grabado donde quiera que vayamos. Habrá pocas declaraci... [Read More]

Comments (1)


I did poll watching for electionprotection.org at the PT Coe school in Phoenix AZ. Part of the package was a prepaid cell phone, unfortunately without camera capability although a disposal camera was part of the package.

I was out there from about 6:15 am until the polls closed after 7 pm. About 350 people voted, a larger than expected turnout, and we recorded only four incidents. I called two in but only got a recorded message.

The experience was great. Electionprotection had over 600 volunteers sign up before the Monday night training and had about 200 more sign in on the training night. They had more volunteers than they needed and, last I heard, logged over 20,000 incidents. I was impressed by their organization and thoughtfulness and met a lot of really good people who traveled from CA and WA as well as Phoenix locals. We all felt that it was critically important that everyone who was entitled to vote got a chance to vote.

Whether all those votes get counted is another question altogether.


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