Be a geofence: The story behind the technology that millennial-led Mississippi Votes uses to help more young Mississippians vote

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Mississippi Votes director, Arekia Bennett, talks in her office in Jackson about the Mississippi Votes organization Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

JACKSON — Arekia Bennett throws herself into a chair in front of a dark red accent wall and rattles off a list of positions she hopes to fill as quickly as possible at Mississippi Votes, the nonprofit she has led as executive director for almost a year.

Recently, Mississippi Votes, whose offices sit in the shadow of the Mississippi Capitol and state Supreme Court buildings, has hired a communications staffer. Now, Bennett is looking to hire a deputy director, a field director and a youth civic engagement coordinator to help expand the organization’s mission, which she describes as creating a culture of civic engagement that is transformative to a particular electorate. More specifically, they focus on people ages 18 to 35 as well as young queer people and people who have experienced the juvenile justice system.

With significant back-to-back elections taking place in the state, Mississippi Votes has had little choice but to mature from a nascent organization with Bennett as the only full time employee leading a coterie of interns, fellows, volunteers and consultants into adolescence.

Key to that growth would be one of the most ubiquitous forces in the lives of teenagers and young adults — their smartphones. But, the main question in Bennett’s mind was: “If we are an organization who is true to utilizing youth leadership and our central focus is trying to get this particular electorate to participate, the treatment becomes: How do we narrow what they consume?”

It was a question of particular urgency. An analysis of voting information in the 2012 presidential election, which led to Barack Obama’s second term as president, shows that Mississippi turnout was about 60 percent, a decrease from 2008.

Turnout is significantly lower for college-aged and young-adult voters. A U.S. Census analysis of national turnout in the 2016 election determined that turnout was lowest among 18- to 29-year-olds, at 46 percent. Still, that age group was the only one surveyed that reported an increase in turnout over the 2012 election, about 1 percent. In Mississippi, as in other states, turnout was significantly lower in subsequent federal elections, particularly in midterm years.

However, the 2018 midterm elections present Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African Americans, with an unprecedented scenario: for the first time in modern Mississippi history, a U.S. Senate race would be competitive. Plus, as one of just a handful of states that elects governors and other statewide officials in non-federal election years, 2018 and 2019 would likely be two of the most important campaigns in a generation.

Mississippi Votes used geofencing to get out the vote.

Founded in 2017 with budget of about $50,000, Mississippi Votes brought together a small focus group of about 10 students from Jackson State University, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi to come up with a way to get their peers invested in the elections through their mobile devices.

One thought was to develop filters for Snapchat, allowing users to post photos to the social networking app with the option of adding a special message about voting, but that seemed insufficient for what they hoped to accomplish.

“Then our data manager said there’s a dope tool called geofencing,” said Bennett, who is sporting a red cardigan over a black T-shirt that reads, “Proudly Serving in the War on Injustice.” She deadpanned: “I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”

She quickly learned that geofencing is an electronic perimeter that uses GPS and radio-frequency identification, which allows data to be tracked when it’s attached to an object. In this case, that object is a mobile ID, a unique number associated with a cellphone number but is different to protect people’s privacy. 

Over the past 15 years, geofencing uses have varied. In 2006, Verizon marketed geofencing to parents as a kind of electronic pet collar for children so that when kids travel outside of a predetermined boundary, such as school or grandma’s house, mom or dad would receive a notification on their phones. Later, geofencing became a staple of retail businesses, enabling them ping potential customers with information about sales and special deals when they’re in the neighborhood. Some companies have also used geofencing to recruit talent.

More recently, political campaigns have turned to geofencing, sometimes called geotargeting, as an advertising tool. Mississippi Votes believes they are the first organization in the state to use geofencing for a general get-out-the-vote campaign.  

They laid the groundwork for the geofencing campaign by working with students on campuses to register as many of their peers as possible before the voter registration deadlines, which resulted in approximately 3,000 new voters.    

“What we found out from talking to students and registering them if there’s a way to do it from the comfort of our phones, there would be a big turn out,” said Zykimbreia Fields, a sophomore nursing major at the University of Southern Mississippi, who worked with Mississippi Votes on her school’s campus registration drive.

Once the stage was set, Mississippi Votes hired a firm that specializes in GPS technology to execute a geofencing campaign at nine public and private colleges throughout Mississippi.

It worked like this: Whenever anyone inside the “fence” opened their smartphone’s internet browser or the YouTube, Instagram or Facebook apps, they saw a Mississippi Votes ad and text that read “Together Let’s Vote November 6.” A button that read “Learn How to Vote,” went to the Mississippi Votes website with a prompt to make a voting plan for Election Day. Clicking that link would bring up a sample ballot and polling precinct information. On Instagram, the photo-sharing app, users would see the ad every 10 to 15 images they scrolled past, Bennett said.

Based on data the organization shared with Mississippi Today, Jackson State University saw the most impressions — nearly 150,000 — and had the most people who clicked on the Mississippi Votes ad, while Alcorn State University had the best click-through-rate, a ratio of clicks as a percentage of overall impressions.

It’s hard to see any discernible patterns just by looking at the table, but Bennett believes the numbers reveal an important trend, which prompts an important question. One of those takeaways was that impressions were higher at schools with polling locations on or near campus, she notes. For example, the school that saw the second most impressions was Tougaloo College (undergraduate enrollment 793) in northwest Jackson, one of the smallest schools where Mississippi Votes used geofencing.

“Either way, their impressions are rather high,” Bennett said. “So how do we start talking to folks about what it takes to have a precinct on all the campuses?”

Mississippi Votes was founded in 2017.

When a Nov. 6 U.S. Senate election went to a runoff because no candidate won a majority of votes, it set the stage for a heated contest between Republican incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and former Congressman and Clinton-era cabinet secretary Mike Espy. As the last Senate seat in the nation left to be determined, the contest was also shaping up to be one of the biggest political stories in the country, and would likely dominate the airwaves.

It also presented an opportunity for Mississippi Votes to extend the geofencing campaign, which costs $30,000, for the general election and runoff. Most important, the extension meant the group could collect more data over a three-week period that included Thanksgiving and Black Friday, when many students would leave campus and spend the holidays with family and voters suffering from election fatigue might very well tune out all forms of political information.

But geofencing has a feature that allows users to be followed outside of the fence.

“When they went home for Thanksgiving, they were still seeing Mississippi Votes ads talking about the runoff election,” Bennett said. In other words, she said with a laugh: “We grab your mobile ID, and we don’t let you go. We’re stalking you. It’s creepy right?”

Mississippi Votes’ mission is to create a culture of civic engagement that is transformative.

Even though geofencing is a common tool of marketers and political campaigns and is perfectly legal, Bennett said Mississippi Votes is sensitive to the fact younger people are more concerned about their online privacy than older people and are more likely to be proactive in having less visible online footprints. The hope, she said, is that students feel that Mississippi Votes is instilling a sense of self-determination in participating in an electoral system that ignores the groups they work with rather raising suspicions that “we’re a bunch of Russians just trying to get our hands on your mobile IDs.”

“We want people to feel safe so people don’t feel like we’re in their brains. The best thing I can say is we’re trying to create a culture of civic engagement and consistently stay on your mind about what’s happening in your life,” Bennett said.

There is evidence that the election remained top of mind for voters across the state. While many observers predicted a significant decrease in turnout in the runoff election between Espy and Hyde-Smith, who went on win the seat, turnout dipped only slightly.

On Nov. 27, about 55,000 fewer votes (890,000 in all) were cast compared to three weeks earlier when 945,000 people voted. In those three weeks, Mississippi Votes saw roughly the same number of impressions but more people watched their voter information video while a third fewer people clicked on the video to find out more detailed voting information. In both elections combined, the campaign resulted in 900,000 impressions and about 270,000 video views while 1,570 people visited the website.

Nathan Schrader, a political science professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, echoes a concern Bennett shared that if geofencing is misused, organizations can risk oversaturating their customers.

“I do think its a technology whose time has come for not just directing people to vote a specific way. I think there’s a huge social and civic benefit to that,” he said.

One of the reasons for Bennett’s sense of urgency to fill those jobs is that Mississippi is one of just three states with gubernatorial elections in 2019, along with Kentucky and neighboring Louisiana.

In addition to that race, Mississippians will choose six other statewide officeholders, almost 200 representatives in the state House and Senate as well as regional commission posts. In short, this is a more consequential campaign, 2018 on steroids.

For Bennett, last year was about disproving myths about apathy and laziness in young people. Last year, Mississippi Votes also conducted live calls in which volunteers asked young voters their feelings on a variety of issues. Callers said health care is important, but were more interested in talking specifically about wanting better access to birth control and reproductive health.

“Believe it or not, young people across the state are more issue focused than party focused. It’s not that young people don’t want to be engaged in electoral politics, it’s that nobody is speaking to the issues that they’re most concerned about,” she said.

Ella Lawson, a second-year student from Michigan studying Arabic, international studies and classics at Ole Miss, said she gets angry when people deride voters her age as lazy

“There are so many barriers to making voting easy and accessible,” Lawson said.

For example, to register to vote for the first time in Mississippi applicants need a state driver’s license number or social security. If you don’t have one, you’ll need a valid photo ID, current utility bill, bank statement, government check, pay stub or other government document listing your name and address in the county where you’re registering. 

Last year’s runoff election also highlighted a cumbersome absentee voting process requiring voters to submit a notarized application for a ballot, waiting for a county clerk to mail it and then having that ballot notarized before sending it back before the deadline. The procedure made is especially tough for college students to vote absentee.

“A lot of people come to school and want to vote, but they don’t have an address in the county so we cant register them to vote. It’s a quandary,” Lawson said.

Leah Smith said voters should include a physical address in the county where they intend to vote so local election officials can assign them to a precinct.

“The mailing address of the voter does not have to be in the county.  If the voter lives in an area without house numbers or street names, the voter registration application provides that the voter can include a drawing of his or her location to allow local election officials to determine the appropriate precinct,” Smith said.

Mississippi Votes hopes the data they’ve collected can help demystify on-campus voting.  

“One of the things I was worried about was getting on young people’s nerves,” Bennett said of the pervasiveness of the geofencing effort. “But I only got one complaint. Someone said, ‘Mississippi Votes is doing the thing, and I found out that I’m not supposed to vote at this location, but I’m supposed to vote here.'”

Bennett said the group is still weighing another geofencing campaign for this year, perhaps one that is more targeted (and therefore more expensive) to specific times of day. In the meantime, she says the organization is reviewing the data gathered and still has just as many questions as answers.

“Does having a voting precinct increase engagement in this electorate? How do we get more out of the impressions? If you click on our ad, how much time are you spending on our site to find information?” she asks.

Basically: “Are people learning?”

Contributing: Adam Ganucheau, Alex Rozier 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that people registering to vote for the first time in Mississippi need to provide a driver’s license number or Social Security number. It also clarifies the procedure for voters living in areas without house numbers or street names.