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electionlineWeekly — May 15, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

Has social media changed elections?
Social media can provide an important snapshot, if not the whole picture

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Twenty years ago, my first job was as a News Aide at The Washington Post. On election night 1994 I was given a telephone and sent on my way to the D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE).

Upon arrival at the DCBOE, I plugged my phone into a jack in the wall in a room set up for reporters and once polls closed about every 30 minutes to an hour someone from the BOE would bring those of us in the room a stack of green bar paper with precinct results listed and I would call in results to then-Metro Editor Joann Armao.

Sometime around midnight, with votes still waiting to be counted, but the outcome clear and a home delivery deadline looming, Armao called the race for Democrat Marion Barry who was making a comeback following time spent in prison.

It was closer to 2 a.m. by the time I could unplug my phone and take the last stack of green bar paper home with me for analysis in the morning.

A lot sure has changed in the past 20 years, but has the instant gratification of social media and the web made the public’s and media’s expectations for election night unrealistic? Do elections officials on social media see it as a burden or a cost-effective way to stay up-to-the-minute with what’s going on at the polls and provide useful information to voters?

How important is it?
“It’s extremely important—Twitter especially,” said Brian Newby, Johnson County, Kansas clerk and author of the Election Diary blog. “I’ve gone from thinking Twitter was essentially useless (2008) to vital, particularly as a monitoring tool. 

Newby noted that social media allows his office to monitor legislative activity on elections, what people are experiencing in the days leading to an election, their experiences with advance voting (such as a ballot not received), and then on election day at the polls. 

“It lets us be much more responsive to issues because we hear about them right away.  Plus, Twitter especially is central to our connector approach to outreach,” Newby said. “We don’t have an outreach budget ($0), so our approach is to get information to connectors and influential who, in turn, can pivot and get it out to their following.  Twitter is great for that.”

According to a Pew study, as of September 2013 73 percent of adults over the age of 18 who are online are on social networking sites.

Facebook of course is the granddaddy with 71 percent of online adults having a Facebook account. Only 18 percent of online adults are on Twitter and 17 percent use Instagram.

The U.S. Elections Assistance Commission attempts to keep track state and local elections officials on social media. Most state election administrative offices have Twitter and/or Facebook accounts and many county and city election administrators are online too, but certainly not all.

Pasco County, Florida is on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Instagram. The county was the first in the country to post real-time voter turnout during early voting and on Election Day.

“I try to harness technology to disseminate information to voters as well as the media and social media is paramount to communication in the 21st Century,” said Brian Corely, supervisor of elections in Pasco.

Corley said that when he began posting the real-time turnout stats in 2012, those Tweets were picked up to the level where international journalists were calling his office and they were also referenced on CNN and Fox News.

Does it create unrealistic expectations?
Corely and Newby both agreed that due to the 24/7-news cycle that we all live in these days, social media hasn’t necessarily created unrealistic expectations on election night.

“We live a in a 10 o’clock news society and the expectation is that results are on TV as people tune in,” Newby said. “Social media hasn’t changed that.  But our real-time communication world does fuel the expectation that we should have results tabulated immediately after the polls close.”

In fact, if used correctly, social media can actually help an elections office keep voters, the media and candidates updated if there are delays in the tally.”

“We have to some degree created the expectation of results posted very quickly and the public needs to understand that our staff and poll workers do the absolute best to ensure timely results that are accurate,” Corley said. “Social media can be helpful in relaying information … any delay beyond our control and the anticipated posting of results as an example.”

Social media, the media and elections
According to Martin Austermuhle, web producer and reporter for WAMU, social media should be seen as something of an early warning system: It offers an insight into how things are evolving during the election or on election night, offering views of what could be either isolated incidents or the tip of the iceberg of much larger problems.

“The use of social media during elections cuts both ways, I think,” said, Austermuhle “While tools like Twitter and Facebook allow voters to immediately voice complaints about the process — long lines, problems with voting machines, etc. — the usual social media tunnel vision can sometimes take over. A few people complaining can make it seem like the whole process is falling apart, when it's really not.”

Mark Anderson, supervisor of elections in Bay County, Florida said it’s important for voters and reporters to remember that an election — especially those in Florida — is not over on election night. He worries that in some respects, social media and the regular media fuel that notion, which can in turn cause problems for elections officials.

“Elections officials perform the elections and have the facts and required timelines. It is never over election night…” said Anderson whose office is on Facebook and Twitter. “The media should stop calling election winners and losers before the actual results have been provided, it is not fair to the voters or the elections officials when a recount from a close election occurs and everyone is already confused because of media statements with no facts.”

That being said, it does seem clear that it is important for state and local elections officials to be on social media, not only to provide results, explain delays or simply keep their voters and local media informed, but also to let the world know what’s happening.

Beth Donovan, Washington Editor for NPR Newsnoted that for national news reporters social media really provides a look into what’s happening in the world outside the Beltway.

“I’ve edited election coverage for NPR since the pre-cell phone era, and social media has changed the way we gather news dramatically,” said Donovan. “It’s played a growing role election night, and I suspect social, and particularly Twitter, will be the front line for results in November.”