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Political activists are turning to cell phones and text messages to register, mobilize voters.

On a billboard alongside a busy San Francisco boulevard, above a restaurant called "My Tofu House," a message aimed at young Asian-American voters is helping break new ground in political activism.

"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.


What's new:
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.

Bottom line:
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.

More stories about political activism

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.

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 it into a ring tone.

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 specifically at registering voters before a November special election called by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The registration is a several-step process. Sending a text message reading "IVOTE" to the number on the sign triggers an immediate reply asking the potential voter to send back their name and address, still using the phone's messaging function. The Chinese-American voter group will then mail voter registration forms to that address, with much of the information already filled in.

A billboard on San Francisco's Geary Boulevard asking people to register to vote by sending a text message.
Credit: Mobile Voter

The billboards will be followed by a more personal approach, such as fliers handed out in Chinese restaurants and "bubble tea" shops popular among teens and twentysomethings, Rigby said.

"The advantage of mobile technology is that you can reach people in environments where you can't reach them by other means, in a way that's convenient and instantaneous," Rigby said.

Last year's MTV-backed Rock the Vote campaign similarly used mobile phones to solicit voter registration, but ultimately sent potential voters online to a Web site. The San Francisco project is among the first to keep interactions entirely on the cell phone, aiming to reach potential voters that may not own a computer.

Open source, open-minded networks
Interest in this kind of campaigning is growing worldwide. A conference held late last month in Toronto brought together for the first time activists from around the world who are using mobile technology. They brainstormed new ways the medium could be used in their projects.

Attendees provided several powerful illustrations of how mobile technology can adapt to environments where Internet penetration remains low, or where traditional online communications can be difficult or dangerous. Groups told of projects using phones to monitor human rights violations against children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or to mobilize indigenous people in Argentina to block bulldozers tearing up forest land.

Developers from the United States showed off a virtual phone bank system, which uses open-source Internet voice technology to transfer calls to volunteers on cell phones. The system is presently being used to help connect recent immigrants with everyday questions to volunteers who speak their languages, but it's likely to be used for political phone-banking in the future.

"There are infrastructure barriers, but I think in the next election you will see massive use of cell phones," said Katrin Verclas, co-director of Aspiration, a nonprofit dedicated to helping activists use new technological tools, and one of the organizers of the Toronto event.

None of this will replace politics' traditional doorbell ringing and mass media TV ads, but backers say these tools are soon likely to complement more common means of reaching out to voters.

"This is not the end-all and be-all," said Mobile Voter's Rigby, "but as one of several supporting tactics in a campaign, it can be very effective."