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How Rock The Vote Is Shaping (And Shaking Up) The 2012 Electorate

America’s youth voter population is getting tech-savvier with each election cycle, but antiquated state voter registration systems aren’t keeping up. With a new campaign targeting 1.5 million new voters, Rock the Vote is hitting Old Government where it hurts: through digital and mobile devices.

How Rock The Vote Is Shaping (And Shaking Up) The 2012 Electorate

Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney’s campaign released an iPhone app that fans could download to take photos of themselves behind banner overlays with phrases such as “I’m with Mitt.” Glaring spelling gaffe aside (the Amercia jokes still run rampant), the app clearly targeted a demographic much younger than the 50- to 60-year-olds who make up the country’s average voter population, one that snaps photos on Instagram and shares them on Twitter.

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During the last presidential election in 2008, Twitter was two years old. Tumblr was 19 months out of the gate. And Pinterest wouldn’t even exist for another two years. They’ve all since become staples of the modern Internet surfer, aiding us in getting many everyday tasks done. But registering to vote isn’t one of them.

Today, the not-for-profit Rock the Vote and social media partner PromoJam unveil “Scan-To-Vote,” a total-assault-style voter awareness campaign that aims to register 1.5 million new voters this election year. The digital campaign leverages scannable QR codes and major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to reach young, eligible voters in the places where they’re already spending a lot of their time. It’s Rock the Vote’s attempt to circumvent a regulations-clogged, antiquated voter registration system that’s changed little–especially in regards to its insistence on paper–since the mid-1800s.

Rock the Vote’s star-studded nonpartisan awareness campaigns have been targeting 18- to 29-year-olds since the early ’90s, when it used a then-novel 1-800 number to reach potential voters. It eventually moved on to fax machines, and, finally, to an online voter registration widget that was embedded in 23,000 websites in 2008. But as new social platforms cropped up and began to change the way young people consumed content and communicated with each other, Rock the Vote President Heather Smith realized she would have to adapt her strategy accordingly. “The technology itself was no longer enough,” she says. “We needed to promote it and put it in front of people where they were already spending time.”

Now, four years later, that idea is more relevant than ever. There are now more than 51 million 18- to 29-year-olds who are eligible to vote. In 2008, 75 million eligible Americans didn’t vote, and 80 percent of them weren’t even registered. The good news is nearly 10 states to date have passed legislation to develop online voter registration systems, including California, Washington, and Oregon.

Rock the Vote is currently working to integrate its own system with the states’. That will allow anyone who chooses to start the voter registration process through Rock the Vote’s platform to jet over to their state’s online program and complete the entire process online. That’s likely to increase the 80% of Rock the Vote who show up on state voter rolls, because people are more likely to finish registering online than if they had to print, sign, and submit their own paper forms. Smith says Rock the Vote will be integrated with at least six of the 10 states by the fall.

Ten states only comprise a fifth of the country, but early signs show online systems work: In Arizona, one of the earliest states to develop a paperless system, the number of registered voters ages 18 to 24 jumped from 29% in 2000 to 53% in 2008. It’s a big step toward building a more democratic electorate, while also acknowledging the fact that most of us use the Internet in pretty much everything we do.

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“The only other form of power in this country outside of money is voters,” Smith says. “And when you throw millions of new voters into the process, it could disrupt how things happen.”

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About the author

Christina is an associate editor at Fast Company, where she writes about technology, social media, and business.

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