By Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of Democracy Works
On a warm Friday night in July, hundreds of people tore through Central Park on the hunt for Vaporeon—a very rare Pokémon Go creature. But what if Pokémon Go players had to hunt Vaporeon--or, for that matter, Squirtle, Arcanine or Zapdos--in polling places come November 8th?
Savvy political organizers are already capitalizing on the most-downloaded app of all time, which works by having players go to “PokéStops” (real world public places) to pick up “Pokéballs” and other virtual objects, then find a “Gym” to battle their Pokémon against other players. On July 12, the Ohio organizing director for the Clinton campaign was showing up at both Stops and Gyms to register players to vote. The campaign then took the next logical step and started dropping “Lures” at an event in Lakewood, Ohio in Madison Park on July 16. Lures are a feature of the game, where players can spend $1.19 an hour to attract Pokémon to a specific PokéStop or Gym. The tactic soon became bipartisan with the Campaign Communications Director for Senator Rand Paul’s election luring players to a PokéStop in Louisville, KY where they could register to vote and learn more about the Republican former candidate for president.
Small businesses, multinational companies, advocacy groups and local governments have all caught onto the strategy too. New York pizzeria L'inizio Pizza Bar saw sales spike 75 percent last weekend after its manager, Sean Benedetti, spent $10 setting lures at a nearby PokéStop. On July 20th, McDonald’s Japanese arm announced an exclusive deal with Niantic, the San Francisco based developers of Pokémon Go, to turn all 3,000 Japanese locations into Gyms. On July 13th, NextGen Climate in Nevada, an anti-climate change group, dropped lures for their registration drive in Paradise Park, Las Vegas. The elections office for the city of Denver, CO did the same, dropping a lure near their office to register voters. Without a doubt, the virtual world is now moving millions of people to take actions in the physical one.
The potential to get voters to the polls is there, but those seeking to use Pokémon Go to increase turnout might crash right into election law. Brian Corley, the Supervisor of Elections for Pasco County, Florida, warned this week that players not registered to vote “could be arrested” if they went hunting for Pokémon at an early voting site or polling place. Many polling places are located at Recreation Centers or other public buildings that feature PokeStop or Gyms, and according to Florida election law, only registered voters and poll workers are legally permitted inside.
Florida, like many states, also has a 100-foot buffer around the entrances to voting locations where electioneering isn’t allowed. The former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Michael Toner, recently argued that campaigns should be legally allowed to buy lures inside the non-solicitation buffer. Toner says that anything inside Pokémon Go isn’t actually in a public space because it exists in a virtual universe only viewable through a mobile app a voter chose to download. Regardless, there’s no certainty when it comes to applying election laws to augmented reality, most were written before the internet was even invented.
The best course of action would be for Niantic to avoid these issues entirely by baking voter participation directly into the platform. Compared to the technology behind augmented reality, Niantic could easily help players verify their registration status or register them to vote, and then “naturally” release rare Pokémon at polling places that only registered voters could see.
There’s a strong precedent for corporations embracing just such a civic duty. In 2008, Starbucks gave away free cups of coffee to people who said they voted. This past March the company launched an effort to help all 150,000 of their US employees register to vote and joined the TurboVote Challenge, a coalition that includes Spotify, Lyft, Airbnb, and the Video Game Voters Network. It’s a moonshot goal to reach 80% voter turnout within a decade, asking companies to leverage their brands and businesses to help users and customers become active citizens.
This isn’t just a good marketing strategy. Voter turnout in the United States is in crisis. The United States currently ranks 138th among countries across the world in voter turnout over the last 50 years, as measured by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Only around half of us are voting in presidential elections, around 40 percent in midterms, and between 20 and 5 percent in most local and primary elections. With less than half of the U.S. population regularly deciding on their choice of representation, we are missing the voices of too many people for our government to be truly representative. In order to have a nation that represents the people, the people must turn up to vote.
Getting people active, however, could be as simple as tying participation to something joyful, like catching a Snorlax. In fact, the founder of Citizen University, Eric Liu, recently wrote that make voting a joyful social activity would be a return to our roots. Traditionally speaking, voting in the US was about parades, festivals, bonfires and raucous street theater. A walk to a PokéStop should allow players to hatch Pokémon Eggs and a love for voting at the same time.
Throughout U.S. history, presidential campaigns have been at the cutting edge of augmented reality, insisting that voters look at our world through a funhouse mirror of cartoonish monsters. It’s not too late, however, for a different type of augmented reality to be used for good this election cycle. Let’s make voting fun again.