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Connecting with Voters in a Digital Age

June 6, 2012


By Jamila A. Johnson

As published King County Bar Bulletin, June 2012.

Seattle University School of Law graduate Fe Lopez stands on a stage in a bar on lower Queen Anne on a warm May evening. The room is packed with young professionals - mainly newer lawyers. The appetizer trays are packed with elaborate sliders and pita bread along the wall beside her.

It is Lopez's honor to introduce Washington Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez to the crowd and it is one that she takes pleasure in. This is obvious from her enthusiasm and energy on the wooden stage. In the midst of singing his praises, she definitively uttered a statement that could quite possibly sum up Justice Gonzalez.

"Just reading his Facebook page makes me tired," she says.

Most of the people in the room know what Lopez means. Many are Facebook friends with Justice Gonzalez. In fact, most learned about that evening's campaign event at The Great Nabob from a Facebook invitation that generated 116 affirmative RSVPs and 30 tentative ones from young lawyers, labor leaders and professionals in the nonprofit world.

If Justice Gonzalez is talking to high school students in Mount Vernon about the importance of being civically active, it is on Facebook. If he attends a reception for the Supreme Court, it is on Facebook. When he attends an Access to Justice Board meeting, it feels as if his Facebook friends go, too. Justice Gonzalez - like many candidates for political and judicial office this year - has fully committed himself to using social media in his campaign.

How Justice Gonzalez came to so heavily emphasize social media in his campaign started with a group of volunteers from his 2011 appointment effort. Two law students laid it out for him. "If we can't find you in two clicks, we're not going to pay attention," they told him. It may be a generational cliche, but sometimes cliches are true.

Justice Gonzalez knew then that he needed to learn how to use social media to connect to younger voters. Through trial and error he has become quite adept at navigating the medium, while ensuring that ex parte communications with attorneys do not occur. While he has not yet begun purchasing advertisements on social media sites, he is very open to the idea. More and more candidates are using this mechanism to connect to voters.

Dean Nielsen is a principal of Cerillion N4 - a political consulting and government affairs company in Seattle. His political career began in 1992 on the campaign trail with President Bill Clinton. In the 20 years since, he has worked on every campaign level in 25 states and Eastern Europe. He has tracked the influence that social media and electronic communications have had on the political process, and has been a pioneer in the process. He began thinking about the ways to use the Internet in his campaigns in 2001.

"In 2006, we began testing language through Google search ads," Nielsen said. "We would slightly change the language of our message every hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for three days running to determine exactly what language was most effective in causing people to click through."

At the time, this was considered novel, but now it can be a part of the standard package with a political campaign. Nielsen also sees the medium changing with the message.

"In 2012, everything produced must include a new media component," he said. "For example, our research has taught us that 10 seconds is the perfect time for an online video. We can - and do - cut 10-second ads out of every 30 we produce."

Sahar Fathi, a University of Washington School of Law graduate and a co-founder of the Middle Eastern Law Association of Washington, is running for the Washington House of Representatives in the 36th Legislative District. Her campaign platform reflects her desire as a first-time candidate to connect to communities that have frequently been excluded from the legislative process. She sees the interactions that campaigns are having with social media to be positive.

"Social media has the potential to create real equity in campaigns - it levels the playing field to allow for real grassroots movements to gain momentum," Fathi said. "Whereas in the past, money may have pushed certain issues quietly, now anyone can push any issue, including that of money pushing issues. It forces politicians to listen to the traditionally unrepresented in society."

Other candidates find social media to be one of the most effective ways to have conversations with voters. Perkins Coie attorney Cyrus Habib is running for the Washington House of Represen­tatives in the 48th Legislative District. While he can frequently be spotted knocking on doors and engaging voters one-on-one on the streets of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, he is also frequently online. He posts articles on issues that he thinks are important to his district and talks to voters about their thoughts and ideas through social media.

"The district where I'm running includes Microsoft and Google, so using social media to connect with voters is a no-brainer," Habib said. "What I like about it is that, short of meeting voters at the doorstep, social media gives me the best opportunity to communicate in an interactive way."

In the crowd at Justice Gonzalez's young professionals' event stood 25-year-old Max Brown. Despite his age, Brown has worked in elections, including those for President Barack Obama and Senator Patty Murray. He mobilized voters and volunteers on issues for Planned Parenthood in D.C. and currently is the political and field director for the Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council.

Brown explains that a successful campaign strives to make at least seven contacts with voters. While a member of the millennial generation, he knows that social media cannot substitute for the power of a person at the door or a phone call. Frequently, it comes down to boots on the ground, knocking on doors.

Brown is frequently tasked to motivate a generation to leave their computers and interact in person for candidates who support the values of working families. It is not always easy, but it is still necessary.

Nielsen cautions about too much reliance on social media. "Of course, it's important to recognize that digital media is a big piece of the puzzle, but it should not be over emphasized," he said. "Many candidates see it as a silver bullet and it's not. Broadcast, cable, direct mail and phones are still the primary mediums."

Jamila Johnson is a litigator at Schwabe, Williamson, & Wyatt. She can be reached at or at 206-407-1555.