There are many things technology can do these days, but even die-hard technology fans would admit that one of the things it certainly can't do is win elections. Still, take a look at the way the 2008 United States presidential election is being fought, and it's clear that technology has nevertheless emerged as a significant tool for campaigning - despite its demonstrated limitations in ensuring democracy.
To get a feel of how technology is influencing politics in the run-up to the November elections, visit the virtual networks of MyBarackObama.com and McCain Space. While Obama and John McCain might have few things in common politically, both presidential hopefuls are leaning heavily on technology for executing their policies and organizing their campaigns, which includes fundraising, networking with supporters and taking measures for remaining compliant.
Chicago-headquartered ElectionMall Technologies is helping Obama, McCain, and many other state and local candidates who are running for office this year. ElectionMall touts itself as the only company in the world offering technology products and services tailored to campaigns and elections.
"Politicians do not always know what they really need," said Ravi Singh, the company's CEO and co-founder. "In every election there are different campaigns and every campaign has different needs. We give them the latest business technology that they need in order to win. We give them business know-how that allows them to run a successful campaign."
According to Singh, the 2008 campaign season is unique in the sense that for the first time, major candidates have secured million of dollars and built grassroots support using software technologies. This has been made possible by the growing accessibility to broadband technology.
"We do not plan a campaign or [organize] strategy," he said, "but we offer a range of tools to incorporate into a candidate's existing strategy and help them establish a better presence on the Web, or otherwise enhance traditional campaigning methods with technology. Some of our more popular tools include targeted e-mail initiatives, online fundraising and election Web site security features."
The 2008 campaign season marks the first time that candidates have employed on-demand services or software-as-a-service (SaaS) to secure millions of dollars and build grassroots support. SAAS is a software delivery system that hosts information remotely over a Web-based network and is rented with a licensing fee rather than purchased and downloaded. The increase of on-demand services stems from the growing broadband access available worldwide. Utilizing SAAS technology and innovation, ElectionMall claims its on-demand services accommodate small to large application needs without disruption due to a well-designed virtualized architecture and that allows for scalability.
Singh said one of the reasons ElectionMall was founded is because he wears a beard and turban. A Sikh by origin but born and raised in the United States, he plunged into politics at age 14 when informed by authorities that wearing a turban at the Marmion USA Military Academy was against policy. His choice was to remove his turban or withdraw from the academy. Instead, he drafted legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan that enabled a Sikh-American to graduate from a U.S. military institution wearing a turban.
Encouraged by that success, a decade ago when Singh was 25 years old, he campaigned as a Republican for a seat on the Illinois General Assembly. But he said he lost that race because when asked by his party to look less "foreign" and remove his turban and beard, Singh responded, "If I do that, I will not be true to my faith and will not be true to my work."
"After losing that election I also realized that there was no one to offer candidates technology solutions of any sort for fighting elections. That's how ElectionMall was born in 1999," said Singh.
ElectionMall claims it's a one-stop shop, which provides Internet-based
nonpartisan solutions for every aspect of elections and campaigns that effectively utilize technology and business know-how to enable candidates, organizations, and other elected representatives to generate enhanced gains in "awareness, funds and votes."
"We know that technology alone does not win a campaign, but technology used for strategy does," said Singh, "and you can purchase that technology for fundraising, Web tools and get-out-the-vote services empowering your campaign and elections."
But even as Singh claims that technology can almost be manna for executing election strategies and running campaigns effectively, analysts warn that the still-evolving technologies also pose serious problems. For instance, while Barack Obama used the Internet to successfully mobilize masses of young voters to participate in the U.S. primary elections (quite a shift from the norm considering a large majority of the under-30 set typically doesn't vote), "by opening his campaign to so many surrogates, Obama is also vulnerable to losing control of his message," said Daniel Trotta, an analyst for Reuters.
"The Internet also has provided a forum for whisper campaigns such as promoting the false assertion [Obama] is Muslim," said Trotta. "White supremacist groups, too, have intensified their online rhetoric coinciding with the political ascent of a man, who if elected in November, would be America's first black president."
Nevertheless, with politics and elections getting increasingly complex globally, technology is perhaps the only medium that can create a level playing field for candidates. According to research by Price WaterhouseCoopers, in 2008, besides the presidential spotlight, there will be 500,000 other local or state candidates. Of the estimated 9.8 billion dollars being spent during the 2008 election cycle, 40 percent of that total will be spent in state and local races.
"These races would require engagement of voters' participation at every level in the democratic process, where technology would be an important enabler," said Singh.
He added that in order to win campaigns, what's important is reaching out and generating awareness. "It is crucial to have the ability to target voters, and technology is a sure-fire way of finding like-minded people to agree with a candidate's issues and values."
Singh takes pride in the fact ElectionMall is a nonpartisan technology solutions firm. "A lot of firms offer consultancy and strategies, but we avoid being those. We have positioned ourselves as a technology company, and we have made a policy of keeping our client list confidential and we have found out that our clients respect that. We do not promote our company based on the list of clients; we promote based on what we deliver for them," he said.
Since its inception, Singh claims more than 600 campaigns have been launched using ElectionMall's on-demand services, while it has filed 53 international patents for its campaign technology processes. The company also has a database of 35 million e-mail identifications categorized according to issues, causes and areas of support.
Aside from being a pioneer and the only complete election technology solution provider in the world, ElectionMall is also the only online registering authority providing digital authentication certificates for candidates, campaigns, and political organizations Web sites in the United States.
And with so much ammunition, will ElectionMall remain an American-centric company as it has since its founding? The next step is to tap the European market - ElectionMall has already opened an office in Brussels, Belgium. The company also has aggressive plans to expand in Asia and elsewhere around the globe. "Over the past two years, I have taken a larger role in international elections, advising multiple elected state officials on IT development and strategy and messaging via the Internet," said Singh.
"Technology has started changing the world in almost every aspect of life," he added. "It is also becoming a serious business for democracies around the world."
Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.
Illustration by Charis Tsevis. Creative Common License Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic