Pokémon Go Could Lure Voters in 2016 Election

Across the nation the Pokémon Go craze is sweeping people off their feet and, most importantly, out of their houses. Whether it’s in front of a small coffee shop or the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital, one need not look far before spotting an impromptu gathering of youth, clutching smartphones and searching for virtual Pokémon creatures that have seemingly infiltrated the real word through the game. Businesses have caught on, purchasing “lures” as a way to attract Pokémon creatures to their location—and to attract consumers to their business.

In an election year in which both parties’ presidential nominees have unprecedented disapproval ratings, our nation’s future could come down to voter turnout. And this has candidates wondering, can I catch more than Pokémon with a Pokémon lure—could I catch some voters, too? 

In the United States, 18 to 24 year olds historically have had the lowest voter turnout rates compared to other age demographics. In 2012, the turnout of young adult voters between ages 18 and 24 stood at 41 percent—or approximately 12.7 million young people—compared to the overall voter turnout of 55 percent. 

According to App Annie, a website that analyzes popular phone apps, since the Pokémon Go game launched on July 6, there have been an estimated 100 million downloads of the game’s app, mostly by millennials. What’s more, with an estimated 21 million daily users the app has overtaken the long established giants of Twitter and Facebook.

Not only does the app have a huge audience, but using it can be an inexpensive way for candidates to target young people. By purchasing $99 worth of the game’s currency, a candidate can buy 170 lure modules. Once placed, these lures attract virtual Pokémon creatures to a particular “PokeStop,” for 30 minutes, which means 30 minutes of interaction with potential voters. That equals 85 hours of face-to-face interaction with voters for only $1.16 per hour. That price tag begins to look even better when compared to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars charged by local TV stations for 30-second ads, which many people ignore.

Of course, this opportunity has not escaped the eyes of the campaigns. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have already cashed in on the game’s popularity by referencing it in campaign speeches and political ads. Some members of the Hillary Clinton campaign have even begun hosting “Gotta reg ‘em all” events, where Pokémon lures help draw young people to a campaign site in an effort to register as many people to vote as possible. State legislative candidates are taking advantage of the game as well, including Dan Horton, who is running for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. In San Francisco, two rival candidates in a real-life battle for a California Senate seat took up a virtual Pokémon battle for charity in late July, according to CBS affiliate 5KPIX.. 

There are potential legal issues on the horizon however. Niantic, the company behind the sensation, is currently discussing adding advertisements in the form of sponsored locations to the game. This would mean that when players are searching for Pokémon creatures in the virtual world they could also spot an ad for Coca-Cola or Uber. Some wonder if political campaigns could be next in line for the game’s sponsorships, raising concerns about PokeStops near polling locations that could be in conflict with state election laws. Like many new technological innovations, understanding how the game interacts with states’ laws is an ongoing process. Many states prohibit electioneering and petitioning within a certain distance of polling locations, and some experts question if a political ad on a mobile device could fall under this category. 

In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Former Federal Elections Commission Chairman Michael Toner said it would not.. Despite the game being tied to real world locations, he argued the technological world is still considered to be a personal space which would not be subject to electioneering laws. And since users choose to play the Pokémon Go game, they would also be choosing to view the political ad, he added, similar to a voter choosing to watch a YouTube video that features a political ad.

Richard Hasen of the University of California, Irvine’s School of Law told U.S. News and World Reportthat he isn’t so sure, however. He said that if a campaign tries to lure voters into a polling place and then plays a campaign ad, that it could be considered electioneering. Both experts agree, however, that election laws have yet to catch up with the technology, so the issue likely could end up in court.