On Blackberries and Early Voting: The Tyranny of Rising Expectations


[Image courtesy of AP via HuffPost]

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the appeal of the Ohio early voting case. As a consequence, the Ohio Secretary of State issued a directive requiring county election offices to offer early voting on the weekend before Election Day.

That directive itself has already sparked some controversy; while pre-Election Day early voting will now be available across Ohio – compared to 2008 when it was only available in a handful of counties – some observers (including the head of the Ohio Democratic Party) have called for even greater hours, especially on Sunday when presumably voters will head out to cast their ballots after church.

It’s an interesting debate, and one which put me in mind of another story that hit the news yesterday. The New York Times had an article looking at Blackberry phones and the people who use (if not love) them. Entitled “The Blackberry as Black Sheep“, the piece describes the plight of Blackberry users who feel as if the world has passed them by:

BlackBerry outcasts say that, increasingly, they suffer from shame and public humiliation as they watch their counterparts mingle on social networking apps that are not available to them, take higher-resolution photos, and effortlessly navigate streets — and the Internet — with better GPS and faster browsing. More indignity comes in having to outsource tasks like getting directions, booking travel, making restaurant reservations and looking up sports scores to their exasperated iPhone and Android-carting partners, friends and colleagues.

The problem is that compared to having nothing, the Blackberry is a huge leap forward – but as technology and society have evolved that leap looks more and more like a baby step. This is not a new phenomenon; technologists have long noticed that users tend to remain dissatisfied even as technology improves – not because they dislike what they have, but because they want what they don’t have. [Anyone who has ever cursed, silently or out loud, as a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load has experienced this – it wasn’t that long ago that the concept of accessing anything across the World Wide Web (across a dial-up line) was so new that lengthy waits were commonplace.]

I think we’re seeing the same phenomenon play out in Ohio right now. It is undeniable that compared to 2008, Buckeye voters have dramatically expanded opportunities to cast a ballot before Election Day. But, thanks to human nature and a little help from the full-throated debate in media, many of those same voters see and hear about expanded early voting across the nation and they want the same thing.

It’s a tough spot for election officials to be in, but it’s also one they should get used to … we’re seeing it with early voting in Ohio but it also comes into play with online voter registration, voter lookup tools and other aspects of election administration.

The tyranny of rising expectations, whether you’re talking about smart phones or elections, is unavoidable. Knowing in advance that it’s an issue doesn’t exactly solve the problem – rising expectations, like most tyrants, are rarely satisfied – but at least it avoids the element of surprise when a election official’s “new big thing” is received by voters as “no big thing”.

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