My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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how to throw a ballot party (for American voters)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know at least two of the candidates running for President. You might even know the Congresspeople running or if you have a Senator race this year. But do you know who is running for city council, school board, state legislature, or judge? If you have propositions, do you know what they are? Do your friends? Sadly, for most Americans, the answer is a profound no. This can be fixed.

Our democracy is most effective when we have an informed citizenry. This does not just pertain to federal elections, but elections at all levels. Often, the local elections are the most important. The judges that you elect to superior court might be nominated for Supreme Court a few years from now. The people you send to state legislature may be running for federal office in no time. Who you help get experience at the local level shapes what happens at the federal level in all sorts of direct and indirect ways. Furthermore, it affects your life directly.

Wading through information on local elections is undoubtedly a pain in the ass. Sure, you’re about to be inundated with pamphlets telling you which way to vote and if your local newspaper is still functioning, they will inevitably list who they want you to vote for. But is this really what it means to be informed? I think not. Rather than waiting to be told what to do, I vote that each and every one of you hosts a party where you leverage the collective intelligence of those around you.

Steps for throwing a ballot party:

  1. Find your local ballot and make a list of all items that you need to know something about. Make sure to include state legislature, county supervisors, city council, school board, judges, and all local and state propositions. Include anything unique to your area. And if it makes sense, include the federal races, although I usually skip those altogether.

  2. Invite your friends to your house for a ballot party… promise alcohol. Encourage them to indicate which items they’d prefer to research and to invite a friend or two.
  3. Assign all items on the ballot to attendees. Double up or assign multiple if necessary. Try to give people a mix of races/measures.
  4. Ask all attendees to research their assigned items. Encourage them to document the pros/cons, the people who are supporting and protesting each, any and all information they can find about the issues at hand.
  5. If it’s your thing, buy a lot of alcohol. Wading though a hefty ballot can be better with alcohol and there’s nothing like being tipsy while debating with friends. Finding a comedian also helps tremendously. This eases tension. If all else fails, record The Daily Show or Colbert.
  6. When everyone is gathered, go through the ballot, item by item. Have the attendee(s) who researched it detail what they learned, what they couldn’t find, and what their impression is based on their research. Discuss. Document the discussion.
  7. After the party, put together a “cheat sheet” from the night, listing each element, the key issues, and the collective consensus. I usually use YES, yes, mixed, no, NO and make a special note if case statements are necessary [e.g., if (pro_bond_measures) YES;]. Send this document to all of your friends who attended and those who didn’t. At the top of the sheet, indicate the election day and last day for registering in your community. If you’re a geek, put this up on a wiki and share it with everyone in your local area.
  8. The day before the last day of registration, call up all of your friends to confirm that they’ve registered. If not, volunteer to drive them to where they can register.
  9. The night before the election, resend the list to everyone and encourage them to vote.

I’ve thrown ballot parties for years now. Not only does this result in a fun excuse for a party, but it’s also an ideal way to make sure everyone knows what the hell they’re voting for. Even if you and your friends don’t agree, at least an informed decision is being made. This also results in network effects. Your vote might not shape an election, but if you get 30 of your friends to vote one way through information and they get 30 of their friends, … well, that changes the results quite quickly, especially for local elections where decisions are often made based on hundreds or tens of votes.

Many of us (self included) are actively working to become global citizens. Often, this means that we know more about what’s going on in Darfur or Georgia than we do about what decisions are being made at our school board. Don’t get me wrong – being a global citizen is really important. Yet, while local politics may feel unimportant in comparison to world crises, the decisions made at a local decision affect your life in so many ways. Who fixes your potholes? How does your trash disappear? How are your hospitals structured? Who makes sure you have water, power, and gas? We always bitch and moan about the state of the union, but too often, we forget about the importance of local communities. They matter. And being an informed citizen really matters. Democracy isn’t about presidential races. It’s about engaging in civics at all levels to make society a better place. It’s about knowing who’s running, what they stand for, and how they will make your community a better place.

If you’re reading this, please, I beg you, get informed and vote. This election isn’t just about Obama and McCain and you shouldn’t think that you’re relieved of civic duty because your state is not a swing state. Sure, your vote might not matter when it comes to the presidential election, but it definitely matters when it comes to local elections. The vast majority are decided by very small margins and if you engage and encourage others to engage, you have the power to shape those. Throw a ballot party, spam your friends, hell, drive them to the bloody polls. Just get involved. Our democracy depends on it.

Update: For propositions and ballot measures, check out Ballotpedia, a great wikified resource of information on ballot measures.

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4 comments to how to throw a ballot party (for American voters)

  • anonymouse

    I totally agree with you here, local politics is some of the most important politics. Unfortunately for me, I spend three months out of the year in a different state, and even if I do register to vote where I live right now, I’ll be living in another state by the time the people I vote for actually take office. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s even harder to keep track of local politics when there’s more than one place you would consider local.

  • That advice is not just useful for American voters: it sounds like a good idea here to, and probably anywhere where there are local elections. Where I live, the BNP – essentially a fascist party – do very well out votes cast in frustration by people who can’t tell the difference between all the other parties.

  • Steve

    danah,

    Perhaps your circle of friends and associates includes people who can be at least somewhat intellectually responsible when drunk. Based on the people I know, I suspect this is a minority situation. Possibly this might be class related – if most of your circle is middle class/college educated.

    -Steve

  • There’s a non-profit here in Oregon, the Bus Project (http://busproject.org/) that basically does this (and a bunch of related activism and volunteering) on an institutional scale. (We call it “Brew Ha-Ha”, and host ‘em monthly on single issues year-round.)

    An example you might like: Trick or Vote. Get dressed up as usual on Halloween, and go knock on people’s doors; when they open the door, yell “Trick or Vote!”, and remind ‘em to vote. (It’s an organized, nationwide thing this year, too; check out http://trickorvote.org/ if you’re curious.)

    So basically, yeah, I agree with the idea, but think it can work pretty much any time, not just around a big election day.

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