"Register to vote," reads the advertisement, which looks more like an ad for a hip new Nokia phone than a public service message. "Text 'IVOTE' to 80837."
The campaign, jointly produced by a new nonprofit called Mobile Voter and the city's Chinese-American Voter Education Committee, is one of the first in the United States to take the surge of political activity that has emerged around e-mail and the Web and move it wholly to the cell phones that are appearing in more and more pockets.
A San Francisco voter-registration campaign is one of the first efforts in the United States to take the surge of political activity that has emerged around e-mail and the Web and move it wholly to cell phones.
None of these high-tech methods of political activism will replace good ol' fashioned doorbell ringing and mass media ads, but backers say these tools are soon likely to complement traditional means of reaching out to voters.
A handful of grassroots campaigns have already used cell-phone text messages to help organize protests and other events, such as actions staged during the national party conventions in 2004. But Washington-based politicos are watching this early San Francisco experiment for lessons that might be applied more directly to their future campaigns.
"The thing that's interesting about this, particularly to political types in D.C., is that this could actually affect the bottom line of an election, which is voter turnout," said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet.
The San Francisco project is the work of the leading edge--at least in America--of a new generation of activists hoping to turn the immediacy and near-ubiquity of cell phones into a powerful tool of political organization and mobilization.
Activists and technologists have long forecast that the Internet would become a campaigning tool. Those predictions matured only in the 2004 election cycle, when Democrat Howard Dean successfully used the Net to raise money and galvanize supporters.
The campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush each drew heavily on the Net afterward, for fundraising and to support volunteer activities.
However, mobile politics has moved faster in many countries overseas, where people more commonly send text messages and surf the Net on their phones.
Cell-phone text messages are widely given credit for tipping the scales in Spain's 2004 election, where 40 percent more messages were sent on Election Day than on an ordinary day, and young voters turned out in large numbers to help unseat the government.
In the Philippines earlier this year, activists opposed to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took a controversial recording of the president talking to election officials and turned the recording into a ring tone. The file--which Arroyo critics said showed she tampered with the vote in 2004--topped ring-tone download charts in the country, despite threats of prosecution from the government.
A first step
The ambitions of Mobile Voter, the project of San Francisco-based Web designer Ben Rigby, are less sweeping. While cell phone use is growing exponentially in the United States, use of text messaging is considerably lower than in many other countries, partly because the feature is more expensive--usually about 10 cents per message--than in other markets.
The Mobile Voter nonprofit is aimed at helping improve voter participation, particularly among younger people who can be difficult to reach with traditional political tools. The current campaign is aimed