Mobile phones have become a truly ubiquitous global technology, revolutionizing economic and social lives in profound ways. Particularly in low-tech environments, mobile phones may be the only digital channel parties can employ successfully to reach a large number of voters.
A mobile communications program typically emphasizes SMS messages to supporters, using them to deliver political talking points, invitations to rallies and other events, and even creating lists of local voters or activists to contact. Parties can also solicit information from supporters via SMS — asking them to vote on party priorities via SMS reply.
Parties can also take advantage of voice features, depending on local conditions (in many countries, voice calls are relatively expensive but text messages are cheap). Parties might hold “virtual town halls” to connect officials with voters or set up conference calls with many supporters at once to rally people before an election or to distribute Get Out The Vote plans and instructions.
In some cases, parties may use automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to poll members or acquire demographic or other information about them. IVR systems ask people to interact remotely with a computer via touch tones or voice commands (“say or press 2 if national security is your highest priority”), allowing an organization to gather information from many people at once. Combining these various phone features can create a rich experience for supporters: participants who listen to a tele-town hall meeting or a speech delivered via voice call could then receive a text message that asks them to volunteer or take a poll. People who replied to the text would then be called by an IVR system that prompts them to supply information immediately and digitally. This case study explores how Cambodian political parties established an IVR system to make party information more accessible to voters.
Finally, in areas where smartphones are common, parties could consider creating custom apps to facilitate communications with supporters. These can push information out to party members, but they can also function the other way, allowing party members to vote on initiatives, participate in virtual chats with party leaders and submit reports on conditions in the field. Apps are only useful if people adopt them however, and a party will usually need to launch an educational/promotional campaign to encourage its users to install an app and use it regularly.
Most smartphones also contain built-in FM radio chips that allow the phones to receive FM radio broadcasts. Although many large cell phone companies have disabled this feature, FM radio is a free alternative to streaming radio and FM radio listeners can receive important information even when cell phone carrier networks are overloaded or down. If smartphone-equipped voters have access to this built-in feature, then political parties can use the radio to reach out to non-member voters, non-member supporters and party members alike.