Registration: New One for the Thumb | Pittsburgh City Paper

Registration: New One for the Thumb

Would-be new voters can use their thumbs to move the voter-registration process along, but they have to move fast -- registration for the November election closes in a week.

Text the Vote, a new program launched by the Pittsburgh chapter of the League of Young Voters, lets people send a text message that gets them voting registration forms via mail or e-mail.

Once the initial text, "PGH," is sent to 75444, it takes less than 10 seconds for the return text message to ask "reply w email addr." Send that reply and another text arrives assuring you that "you'll get ur voter reg form email soon." And you do, five minutes later. Just print it, sign it, and mail it in.

"The more ways you can give [voting] access, the better," says local League Field Director Nish Suvarnakar. (The massively popular social networking site MySpace has also launched get-out-the-vote drives this year.)

Increasingly, technology is providing such access -- and also preventing it. As more and more young people cut their landlines in favor of cell phones, they disappear from phonebook listings, becoming unreachable by groups pushing voter registration. "There's going to be a need to contact young people" in new ways, Suvarnakar says. He recalls getting three text messages from P. Diddy in 2004, reminding him to "Vote or Die," but those texts didn't provide any way to register and avoid the death sentence.

People with phones but no e-mail can text in their mailing addresses to have the forms mailed to them. That process is, however, less useful as the Oct. 10 deadline for registration approaches, when voter-registration forms sent by mail must be postmarked.

While the software behind Text the Vote, a program called Mobile Voter, has been available since 2004, it's only catching on now. According to League Executive Assistant Julia Nagle, the group adopted it nationally just a few weeks ago. In countries with greater cell-phone saturation, texting has long been used as a political tool, from mobilizing protesters in Spain to raising the profiles of youth candidates in Scotland. Text the Vote inventor Ben Rigby says part of his inspiration came from noticing such movements while traveling. But distribution of the San Francisco-based company's technology was very limited two years ago, Rigby says. This election cycle is serving as something of a trial run for the program; Rigby believes Mobile Voter will be in widespread use by 2008.

Cell-phone voter registration, says the League Regional Director Khari Mosley, is also a great way to target diverse populations: "The digital divide, the technology gap -- you don't see that in cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone."

To register to vote via cell phone, text "PGH" to 75444 or visit for full instructions.