Every modern presidential election is at least in part defined by the cool new media breakthrough of its moment. In 2000, there was email, and by golly was that a big change from the fax. The campaigns could get their messages in front of print and cable news reporters — who could still dominate the campaign narrative — at will, reducing what had been a 24-hour news cycle to an hourly one. The 2004 campaign was the year of the “Web log,” or blog, when mainstream reporters and campaigns officially began losing any control they may have had over political news. Anyone with a computer could weigh in with commentary, news and, often, searing criticism of mainstream reporters and politicians — “Media Gatekeepers be damned!” Then 2008: Facebook made it that much easier for campaigns to reach millions of people directly, further reducing the influence of newspaper, magazine and television journalists. In 2012, Twitter shrank the political news cycle to minutes if not seconds, exponentially adding to the churn of campaign news.
Tech firms are courting campaigns ahead of the 2016 presidential election, where budgets for digital advertising are expected to reach new highs. The election will be tweeted, googled, snapped, liked on Facebook, and shared on numerous other social media platforms. And Silicon Valley is hoping to turn that engagement into big profits. While billions will be spent on political advertising over the next year, television remains the prime mover and budgets for digital ads trail traditional media. But even by one recent estimate from Borrell Associates, 9.5 percent of political media budgets could go towards digital media — a total of $1 billion.
This was supposed to be the presidential campaign that ends the dominance of TV ads — the Snapchat election, the live streaming election. “If 2004 was about Meetup [and] 2008 was about Facebook, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it),” vowed President Barack Obama’s ex-communications guru Dan Pfeiffer. Not yet. It’s increasingly clear, as two dozen campaigns and their super PACs plot their strategies, that 2016, will be, once again, about television. Between campaigns and independent groups, television ad spending during the 2016 elections is projected to top $4.4 billion. That’s over a half-billion more than in 2012. And it’s at least four times what campaigns and groups are preparing to spend on their online strategies.
Los Angeles County is home to a burgeoning technology industry. It boasts a roster of high-profile companies including Hulu, Snapchat, and Tinder. As of 2013, it offered more high-tech jobs than other major markets in the country, including Silicon Valley and New York City. Come election time, however, its residents cast their votes by marking inkblots on ballots that resemble Scantron forms. This discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, thanks to recent efforts, it’s gradually narrowing. LA County is finally in the process of developing an open source voting system, purported to be a flexible, intuitive replacement of the incumbent method. Under the new system, slated for public use in 2020, voters will indicate their choices on a touchscreen-operated tablet, after which a machine at the voting booth will print and process their paper ballots to be tallied. This is a leap from the ink-based system, which has remained unchanged since its adoption in 2003. The project, which began in 2009, stems from a combination of misfortune and luck. After the 2000 presidential election, many jurisdictions adopted paperless voting systems in compliance with new federal legislation. LA County couldn’t make the shift; the electronic systems on the market lacked the capacity to process its high volume of votes, and the county was forced to develop its own software. Eventually, some of the other jurisdictions’ machines began to fail and lost their certification. Though spared, Los Angeles County recognized this volatility, and it started drafting plans for a more sustainable solution.