Why the U.S. needs to ban social media on election day

A social media blackout would be a simplistic, and impossible, solution to poor voter turnout. 

Mar 1, 2020, 6:21 pm*

Internet Culture

 

S.E. Smith

Imagine an election day without any political commentary on social media. Not a single tweet about polling results, not a campaign ad on Facebook, and silence on traditional media as well. Until very recently, that was the situation in Canada by law, which had an elections blackout to address the vast span of timezones across the nation. The government feared that the vote on the West Coast would be affected by results from the East, so it took the obvious and simple measure of censoring results until all polling locations had finished voting.

As the United States stares down election reform in preparation for 2016, the idea of an election blackout might seem almost appealing, though it would almost certainly be impossible to execute and would likely be immediately (and successfully) challenged in court as a violation of the First Amendment. Even as an elections blackout wouldn’t be likely to make it in the United States, it’s a fascinating thought experiment, a sort of what-if that’s worth pondering. It’s just possible that an elections blackout could totally change the scope and direction of American politics.

Historically in Canada, politicians, political parties, and other groups were barred from running campaign ads on election day and the day before (notably, the U.S. already bars certain kinds of election communications in advance of elections). In addition, people couldn’t use social media like Twitter and Facebook to talk about results on the day of the election, and could in fact be penalized for doing so. In a 2011 tweet-in, social media users flouted the law in an act of protests, trying to highlight the fact that it was no longer reasonable in an Internet age.

The bold warriors ignoring the communications ban finally had their way this year with the passage of the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23), which instituted a number of changes to Canadian election law, including a lift on the previous restrictions surrounding political advertising and sharing results on social media. Now, Canadians will be able to tweet their hearts away every election, even though most already were.

While such an abridgement of civil liberties might seem unthinkable in Canada’s neighbor to the south, the logic behind it was actually quite understandable. In a nation that covers a huge number of time zones, parts of the country would be done voting long before others. In effect, elections could be decided by the East Coast, with voters on the West Coast not playing a significant role in the election. For federal elections, voters might, thus, be discouraged from coming out to vote on an issue in the polls because they’d assumed the results were predetermined, while for local elections, decreased voter turnout would mean that a smaller percentage of the population actually played an active role in deciding policy.

It might have seemed rather draconian, but the Canadian communications restriction wasn’t entirely bizarre. In the United States, there’s a similar problem: Elections are often decided long before polls close on the West Coast, let alone in Alaska and Hawaii; Hawaii is six hours behind the East Coast, with the potential for results to be called before Hawaiians have even gone to lunch. In 1984, for example, depressed voter turnout in California was blamed on early calling by the media. Congress had even asked the media to consider not projecting results, a measure networks like ABC rejected, and in the midst of discussion about whether a transmissions blackout would work for the United States, some were strongly opposed.

Voter turnout can be low, even in federal elections, say those concerned about early polling results, as people see that the presidency is already effectively wrapped up, and thus, they don’t show up for state offices and ballot initiatives. Consequently, a state can be governed by people, and laws, that weren’t necessarily put in place by a majority of the population.

The most obvious argument against such a blackout is that it would be unconstitutional. Even if put to vote and passed by Congress, which is highly unlikely, it wouldn’t stand up in even the lowest of courts, and if by some miracle it made it to the Supreme Court, it would be soundly smacked down effectively instantaneously. The United States highly values freedom of speech and wouldn’t be willing to compromise on that value even for the sanctity of elections, especially if there was no guarantee that such a law would actually improve the electoral system.

Moreover, it would be effectively impossible to enforce. Assuming it was possible to put blackouts on major TV networks and radio stations, only really possible with their cooperation (with many likely to dig in and resist it on behalf of their audiences), there’s no way to stop the tide of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more would become venues for election data, which would leak out no matter how aggressively the government pursued it; were the U.S. to somehow convince social media to censor users, they’d find ways around it, and the resulting outrage would be considerable.

As a country that prides itself on free and fair elections, the U.S. has already banned electioneering around polling stations, but that’s as far as the nation is willing to go. However, many Americans feel they aren’t represented in local or federal government, and some believe that one of the reasons for that is the provision of polling projection data on election day, creating a disincentive to hit the polls in states waiting for polls to close, as there’s typically a last-minute spike in voting at the end of the day.

In that landscape, the argument for banning transmissions about poll results, and for restricting campaign advertising, might seem almost logical. Put it in more frivolous terms: For West Coast residents, staggered airing times for television are a nightmare, as Twitter and Facebook light up with spoilers during primetime, which is still three hours away from them. Put that on an electoral level, where the stakes are much, much higher: The results are spoiled before people even leave work, and it’s not worth taking a stop at the polling place on the way home.

The clearest argument in favor of a communications blackout is that it might, and this hasn’t necessarily been substantiated by research, improve turnout in Western states, and, by extension, increase the level of engagement with local politics. Yet, state by state data on turnout doesn’t necessarily support the notion that Western states are influenced by the early announcement of poll data. In 2012, for example, when the Presidential election was called relatively early, turnout was all over the map. Oregon, for example, had extremely high turnout (more about that in a moment), while West Virginia’s was abysmal.

Getting voters involved in local politics is a matter of much more than restricting poll data to increase their emotional involvement in the outcome of an election. Local politics overall almost seems to be a dying behemoth in the United States, a troubling development given that most national politicians start on the local level. The fights that may seem petty on a local scale: City council member, major, judge, even sheriff, acquire much higher stakes as they climb the ranks. These are the people who will be writing policy, appointing officials, and shaping communities, potentially for multiple decades.

The lack of investment in local politics may have something to do with the fact that they lack the sex appeal of politics on the national scale, but it’s also because of decreased media attention. Formerly, media saturation made the matter almost inescapable, and today, it’s easy to avoid discussions about local politics, even within smaller communities. Residents may not be familiar with local and state initiatives, and may be surprised to learn that politicians are running unopposed for a number of political offices, including some on the state level.

This can’t be blamed on the fact that people read election results on Twitter. Poor turnout in midterm elections isn’t a federal issue: It’s a state one. By extension, limiting information about polling during Presidential elections may not necessarily encourage people to turn out for their state elections; reforming the electoral college may be the secret, by creating a greater sense of investment and participation in elections for individuals. It’s not that people don’t care about state elections because the Presidency is already decided. They don’t care because they don’t care about state elections.

In fact, the secret to high turnout is already on display, in Oregon, one of the consistently high-performing states. As an all-absentee state, allowing people to fill in their ballots at leisure, the state brings out voters in droves because the barriers to participation is very low. Colorado, also an all-absentee state, has similarly high turnout numbers. Intriguingly, in states that allow early voting in all forms, turnout can be mixed, depending on factors like voter ID laws, the individual election, and ease of voting.

Ultimately, the solution to poor turnout in elections doesn’t lie in restricting communications. It lies in making elections more accessible, and in fact leveraging social media for the opportunities it offers in terms of engagement. People who complain that they don’t feel represented in federal and local politics need to engage with those politics themselves to make changes.

If local elections can be made as inescapable as the latest cat meme, for example, citizens might just become more interested in them.

Photo via Vos Efx/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 29, 2014, 8:00 am