Voice-Enabled Democracy

How Alexa, Siri, and Google Home answer questions about the midterms.

An Alexa with "I Voted" stickers on it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

There are some technical advancements about which one thinks: only in America. Amazon Alexa’s election information feature is one of them—surely no other country could combine such technological convenience with such a needlessly complicated voting system.

Just in time for the midterms, Amazon has announced a new Alexa feature, in partnership with Ballotpedia and the Associated Press. In the lead-up to, during, and following Election Day on Tuesday, Alexa will be available to answer specific midterm-related questions, in what Amazon calls “a unique, simple, and natural way to learn about the election.” Just like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the Oscars, except that the results will affect the fate of the nation and possibly the world!

Amazon says that the focus here is on giving people election information immediately and succinctly, and it’s a noble goal. After all, going online for voting info can lead one astray—with some bots telling potential Democrats not to vote on Tuesday, it’s clear that not all A.I. is as enthusiastic about democracy as Alexa.

Alexa will simply provide the necessary basics on a limited number of queries. (For now, that is—in the not too distant future, electoral assistant bots will be able to analyze your various positions and offer you a personalized how-to-vote sheet, saving you from having to think at all.) The questions you can ask Alexa are listed here—as with many Alexa features, you need to know what to ask in order to make use of it at all. So what does Alexa have to say for itself in the days before the midterms, and how does it compare with Google Assistant and Siri, digital assistants that haven’t put together a special package?

All three can say when the midterms are, but the details on offer vary wildly. “Alexa, what’s my election update?” prompted a detailed but very two party–focused answer when I asked on Sunday from my apartment in New York:

Here’s your election update. There are two days until Election Day, when Republicans and Democrats will compete for control of Congress. There are 35 seats up for election in the Senate. All seats in the House are up for election, where a party needs 218 seats to control the House. In New York, there are elections for governor, Senate, and the House of Representatives. Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Marcus Molinaro are running for governor. The candidates for Senate are Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Chele Farley. Some races to watch include the elections for governor in Wisconsin, Nevada, and Florida, and the elections for Senate in Indiana, Florida, and Nevada. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 6.

(When I asked again, races to watch had switched to the gubernatorial elections in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Kansas, and the Senate races in Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana. You can’t blame Alexa—it’s hard to know what to focus on right now.)

When asked the same question, Siri offered a random selection of Apple News stories about the midterms—the top link is currently India’s Economic Times reporting on gold prices ahead of the U.S. midterms—while Google Assistant had a whole different election in mind. When I said,  “OK, Google, please give me information on the election,” the response was:  “Mental Floss says that when George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 he bought voters 144 gallons of hard cider as part of his campaign. He won that election.”

Alexa has information at the ready about who and what is on the ballot in every state, although again, with a very two-party focus—when I ask about Texas, it’s almost as if Neal Dikeman doesn’t exist. (Meanwhile, my speaker has never sounded more robotic than when trying to sound out all the o’s in Beto O’Rourke.) When asked about California, Alexa even pointed to some of the most important state ballot measures. I asked, “What’s on the ballot in California?” Siri and Google Assistant were content with sending me straight to the Ballotpedia source. Alexa’s response:

In California, the ballot for the Nov. 6 elections includes candidates for governor, Senate, and the House of Representatives, as well as 11 state ballot measures. According to Ballotpedia, some notable measures include Proposition 10, the local rent control initiative; Proposition 6, the voter approval for future gas and vehicle tax increases and 2017 tax repeal initiative; and Proposition 8, the limits on dialysis revenue and required refunds initiative.

Nice to see Alexa giving a digital encyclopedia some credit for once. But despite Amazon’s suggestion that you ask, “Alexa, what does it mean to vote yes (or no) for [state] [ballot measure]”? —Alexa couldn’t explain what it means to vote yes on California Proposition 10.  And while Alexa can list the names on the ballot, it can’t actually tell you what those candidates stand for—you’re on your own there.

Unfortunately for the few undecideds out there, Alexa isn’t going to tell you whom to vote for: “That’s for you to decide.” Nor is Google Assistant—“How you vote is up to you. I can look up information on the election if you’d like”—or Siri—“That’s a very personal decision, Rachel,” including a link to register at vote.org.

But this brings up a concerning question. Do we really want more untested tech involved in “informing” people about elections? If Russia can run misinformation campaigns on Twitter, why not through the speakers in our homes? Researchers in both China and the U.S. recently found that Alexa devices can be hacked aurally, using sounds undetectable to the human ear. There have already been attempts by bots this election to dissuade Democrats from voting—what’s to stop such forces from hacking digital assistants to tell their owners that the polls are open later than they really are? Sound far-fetched? Bad actors are already spreading misinformation on Facebook and Twitter about how to mail in ballots or vote online, and it’s not hard to imagine Alexa being the next target. With the number of misinformation campaigns out there, we surely don’t need to be opening the door to another.

However there’s one solid purpose Alexa can definitely serve these midterms: freeing users from having to look up incoming results, or staring at that damn needle all evening. Amazon claims Alexa will be able to provide real-time updates on the results, thanks to a partnership with the Associated Press. Just ask “Alexa, what’s my election update?,” “Alexa, who is winning in [state]?,” or “Alexa, how is [candidate] doing in the election?”

No word yet on whether Alexa will be able to tell you when it’s time to move to Canada.