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Uberti: City election app is a giant leap forward

New York City Campaign Finance Board app.

New York City Campaign Finance Board app. Credit: New York City Campaign Finance Board app.

Political processes usually lag far behind technological advancement. The lever machines New Yorkers will use to vote in this year’s elections, for example, were a hot new invention in the 1890s. But the old-school contraptions were deemed necessary in 2013 because election officials couldn’t count votes fast enough using electronic scanners.

Despite such slow evolution of the mechanisms of political participation, the city’s Campaign Finance Board is trying to go back to the future. Voter turnout in New York is historically low and falling lower: Only 29 percent of the electorate turned out in the 2009 mayoral election, down from 1969’s high-water mark of 81 percent.

But the CFB believes it can help reverse that downward spiral with a one-stop candidate shop in the palm of your hand. On Wednesday, the agency unveiled NYC Votes, a mobile app designed to aid in voter registration, education and contributions. The final product — technically a mobile website — will take shape as new features are added in the coming weeks.

Upon typing in her address, a voter will see who’s running in their district, the CFB’s voter guide, links to candidates’ websites and social media accounts, and even endorsements from local media and civic groups. The app gives countdowns to voter registration deadlines and election dates, along with information on where to vote. And it even allows voters to begin the registration process online.

Most important, it gives users the ability to make campaign donations with a swipe of the thumb, slashing much of the paperwork required by the CFB to document contributions. This facet will be especially helpful to city council and other hyperlocal or grassroots campaigns.

But can an app — and a useful one, at that — make that much of a difference?

Like many apps, this one targets young adults, a politically apathetic demographic that uses mobile phones for everything from scanning business cards to paying for beer. But while new technology will provide politically interested young people — they’re endangered, not extinct — additional tools for participation, why would the rest of us decide to scroll through comptroller candidates when we can play Words with Friends?

Similarly, naturalized citizens, minorities, the poor and the poorly educated generally have low voter turnouts. And these are exactly the same groups that typically have less access to new-age digital tools.

So skepticism about the app is warranted, at least for now. In this campaign season, it will likely be more a gadget for the politicially motivated than a catalyst for political motivation. But that could change as more social, financial and, yes, civic life goes mobile.

What the CFB did provide is a glimpse of the future of political participation. And if the century-long tenure of New York’s lever machines is any indication, NYC Votes — or at least the idea behind it — won’t disappear any time soon.