Is Partisan Technology a Bad Thing?

There have been lots of articles about the wonders of the Obama campaign’s cutting-edge technology, but even as a sad Romney supporter it had never occurred to me that this might be a bad thing. Tom Steinberg begs to differ. His main point seems to be that the technical arms race between GOP and Democrats is wasteful because of mutual cancellation: “But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it.” Tom would rather people work on tech that won’t be counter-acted, and that will therefore make our lives better. That’s plausible, but the article made me wonder about something else. If a campaign can be won or lost on the basis of technical prowess or some other factor that’s independent of political differences, are we risking a society where democracy exists in theory, but in practice has already become irrelevant? If money can corrupt politics, can’t a decisive marketing advantage do the same thing?

5 thoughts on “Is Partisan Technology a Bad Thing?”

  1. To paste my comment from FB, where you mentioned “…the Obama campaign’s Narwhal platform” by name:

    …or the Romney campaign’s Orca platform…I mean, both platforms were essentially intended to identify likely voters for their side and make sure that they made it to the polls or otherwise cast a vote, correct?

  2. Dan-

    The only reason I singled out Obama’s Narwhal was that–from everything I’ve read–it was pretty much far and away superior to the Romney campaign’s Orca competitor. My underlying concern is that if you can win an election by having better tech, it’s a lot like being able to “buy” an election: you just buy the tech product that lets you win. Seems like that would be a threat to the democratic process, don’t you think?

    The question would be exactly the same if it was the other way around, and if Orca was superior to Narwhal. That’s just not how it worked out this time around.

  3. >> If a campaign can be won or lost on the basis of technical prowess or some other factor that’s independent of political differences, are we risking a society where democracy exists in theory, but in practice has already become irrelevant? <<

    I'm just cynical enough to believe that we're already most of the way there anyways and it irritates the ever-loving snot outta me.

  4. I’m not sure whether I agree, or at least whether Narwhal/Orca are a good example. Sure, there are possible ways for tech to be a threat to the democratic process, the obvious example being any of the myriad ways electronic voting might go wrong. Or, in a more lighthearted thought, hacking a road work sign to detour voters to discourage them from making it to the polling location. But at least in this case, the point is the tech probably only swayed the vote inasmuch as it tried to ensure that people who were going to vote for a particular candidate actually remembered to go do so.

    What I wonder, if I may invoke stereotypes, is whether the case would have been the same if both candidates had been using the same, or equivalently-performing, platforms. If the average Democratic voter is younger and stereotypically more tech-savvy, including probably having one or more always-on, always-connected devices, while the average Republican voter is less tech-savvy and less connected. If that is the case and has an impact on the success of tech-based get-out-the-vote platforms, then the Democratic base will win on numbers and/or the Republicans need to find a way to actually mobilize their own base in a more demographic-appropriate manner.

    But assuming there is some point at which technology has a large enough impact that it somehow leads to one party or another winning or losing an election outside of political differences, I feel like it is lower down on the list of things that should be dealt with to protect the democratic process, compared to things like campaign finance and voter eligibility/registration shenanigans.

  5. Dan-

    Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that one party had a mobile teleportation device. They had lots of them, in fact, and they used their database of likely voters to go around and get every single likely voter to a polling place. See, for the other party, a small percentage of their likely voters got too busy, or forgot, or just were unwilling to stand in long lines. But for the party with the teleportation device, they managed to get the cost of voting for their supporters down to effectively zero.

    Now imagine that the party without the teleportation device actually had slightly more supporters, and would have one, but instead the smaller party won because they had better turnout.

    Would that technology, distributed unequally, have been a threat to democracy?

    It’s the same concept with Orca / Narwhal. If Narwhal = more voters (all things equal), then it seems to be at least a little bit problematic.

    >>But assuming there is some point at which technology has a large enough impact that it somehow leads to one party or another winning or losing an election outside of political differences, I feel like it is lower down on the list of things that should be dealt with to protect the democratic process, compared to things like campaign finance and voter eligibility/registration shenanigans.< < Posiibly, but on the other hand, I think that danger is largely overblown: >>By contrast, political speech – whether financed by corporations and unions or not – is only effective if it persuades the public. And, Mitt Romney’s notorious comments notwithstanding, the overwhelming evidence is that voters generally do not form their political opinions on the basis of narrow material self-interest. The problem with modern voters is not that they are selfish, but that they are often ignorant and irrational. That problem cannot be solved by restricting corporate and union-funded political speech. Obviously, corporate and union-funded speech sometimes seeks to exploit political ignorance. But the same is true of speech funded by the media, political parties, activist groups, and others. In a political environment where the electorate is often ignorant, whoever is allowed to engage in electoral speech has a strong incentive to take advantage of that ignorance.< < http://www.volokh.com/2012/11/27/citizens-united-and-the-fall-of-the-roman-republic/

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