By Matthew Bridgewater
Purpose: This project examined the strategies elections technology companies use to establish ethos to clients and stakeholders and suggests implications these strategies have on the constitutional discourse about voting.
Method: To manage the scope of the analysis, this project rhetorically analyzes three elections technology companies’ “About” pages. These “About” pages are the heart of a company’s digital ethos because they describe the mission, scope, history, and expertise of the company to its clients, customers, investors, and the public at large.
Results: In addition to expected appeals to expertise, patriotism, and democratic values, these companies also created ethos through business profitability and the impartialness of technology to promote their products and democracy as a whole.
Conclusion: An important part of building ethos among elections technology companies is done by appealing to business profitability and the impartiality of technology to promote democratic institutions. This contemporary strategy might reorient democratic discourse, values, and institutions themselves.
Keywords: Ethos, democracy, political-economy, voting
- Technical communicators and other writers are in positions to identify, create, challenge, and reconfigure frameworks of technology, business, and democracy not just through elections technology companies but through the government itself and other businesses that work with the government.
- How a company positions itself in relation to either the timeless values and institutions of democracy or contemporary political issues is becoming more important for technical communicators.
- Although traditional appeals to ethos remain an important part of ethos creation, contemporary ethos building might be more situated in larger political-economy ecologies.
The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 brought many electoral issues to the forefront: the role of Wikileaks as a political antagonist, potential voter fraud and Russian influence, voter suppression, representational issues via gerrymandering and the Electoral College, and the influence of fake news and the ability of social media to virally disseminate it. The extent to which these issues affected the election is currently a major subject of the news cycle. All of these issues can influence how Americans come to view the success, legitimation, and authority of voting results.
Although there are arguably many ways to legitimize democratic governance, democracy loses its legitimacy unless citizens believe in the integrity of the election process. This is what makes trust in the voting process so important. Election technology, then, imbues democratic office holders with legitimacy. Conversely, a loss of faith in the validity and reliability of elections technology can irreparably harm officials/candidates and undermine the bedrock of the democratic system. This makes the electoral process the circulatory system of democracy. Without electoral technology and processes tabulating votes accurately, quickly, and with public confidence, the rhetorical and legal legitimacy of democracy washes away.
Voting itself seems straightforward, but the election process is remarkably complex. A large reason for this complexity is that electoral rules, procedures, and technology vary in the United States state by state, because states, not the federal government, are largely responsible for conducting elections. Of course, the federal government has had some role in the electoral process. It has stepped in when egregious abuses of power have taken place to limit voting. Constitutional amendments (such as the 15th and the 19th) and federal legislation (such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the “Motor Voter” Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002) have aimed to prevent discrimination, make registering to vote easier, and improve weaknesses and lessen confusion in polling places. Other actions by the federal government, however, such as the Supreme Court of the United States striking down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013), have arguably led to a suppression of the vote. The Supreme Court has also affected the voting process in other ways. In Bush v. Gore (2000), the Supreme Court stepped into the Florida recount, ruling that the recount must stop, essentially declaring George W. Bush the winner of the 2000 Presidential election. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court ruled that corporations, labor unions, and other organizations can spend unlimited money in an election because that spending is protected as free speech. In Justice Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United, he wrote that the ruling opens up the American electoral process to stinging criticism: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold” (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010, p. 63). In addition, the government at both the state and federal level can sometimes struggle to act at all to deal with electoral issues, as in several cases involving perceived abuses of gerrymandering—the most recent of which being Gill v. Whitford (2018). Ultimately, the responsibility falls to states for the validity1 and reliability2 of elections.
Elections technologies are not just about the button a voter pushes or lever a voter pulls down. To borrow a concept from Bruno Latour, elections technology is a black boxed technology that belies a complicated and expansive process. The elections technologies network consists of “every piece of hardware and software that is used by local election officials throughout the process of administering elections, from registering voters to conducting post-election audits” (Elections technology toolkit: Election machines and beyond, 2016, para. 1). On its website, the National Conference of State Legislatures organizes elections technologies issues as follows:
- Ongoing: Voter Registration, Maintaining the Voter List
- Before an Election: Selecting Voting Equipment, Designing the Ballot, Pre-Election Testing
- During an Election: Ballot on Demand, Electronic Ballot Submission, Electronic Poll Books, Mail Ballots
- After an Election: Post-Election Audits
As many technical communicators can deduce, there are ample points of contact between our profession and the state elections technology process. Technical communicators have already breached several entry points for research in elections technology (see Dorpenyo, 2016; Pryor, 2017; and Whitney, 2013). This article examines how elections technology company websites establish ethos, trust, and public confidence with their audiences. While elections technology companies rely on strategies such as appealing to expertise, American history, and American patriotism, they often frame company ethos using the rhetorics of business profitability and the efficiency and impartial good of technology, aligning these rhetorics with the goals of democracy to legitimize the voting process. In doing so, the rhetorics of business and technology often orient and legitimize democratic processes and institutions. This could very well be a sharp difference in the way the democratic process has legitimated itself in the past and in how we envision the foundations of democratic institutions. The rhetorics and ethos of business and technology, then, become the handmaiden of democracy.
Theories of ethos can help us understand and think about electoral technology companies and their place in the electoral process. Similarly, technical communication and rhetoric can help us think about and question broader electoral systems and institutions. Elections technology companies play an incredibly important role in maintaining a legitimate elections process not just in the United States but in any country concerned with fair elections.
Establishing ethos, trust, and public confidence begins at least with Aristotle and continues into contemporary times (e.g., Gatti, 2011; Koller, 2009; Lemke, 1995). This paper first reviews pertinent articles about ethos largely drawn from technical communications writ large. Then, it rhetorically examines three large elections technology companies (Election Systems and Sofware, Smartmatic, and Dominion Voting), identifying how business profitability and technological impartiality create ethos in these companies’ “About” pages to promote trust and confidence in their companies to carry out the sacrosanct duty of conducting fair, honest, and credible elections. This analysis demonstrates that elections technology companies create public confidence and trust by showing their commitment to democracy not just through traditional appeals to expertise or to traditional American tropes but through the ethos and rhetoric of business and technology.
Literature Review of Ethos in Technical Communication
Ethos, credibility, trust, and trustworthiness are largely similar and have a long history, but some distinctions do exist. Aristotle defines ethos as “persuasion through character” (On Rhetoric, 1.2.4) and further claims that ethos is “the most authoritative form of persuasion” (On Rhetoric, 1.2.4). This is because “we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly [than we do others]” (On Rhetoric, 1.2.4). What’s important here is that, since rhetoric is concerned with probabilistic matters (On Rhetoric, 1.2.12), the character (ethos) of the speaker is of utmost importance in determining the best course of action. Although Aristotle advocated that ethos was more important than pathos or logos for persuading audiences, this advice was not always heeded: Campbell (1995) and Katz (1992) have convincingly argued that technical communication has often valued logos over ethos as the most important appeal.
Contemporary technical communication literature further complicates ethos. Johnson-Eilola and Selber (2012) characterized ethos as the portrayal of an identity. Anderson (2011) claimed it is “roughly equivalent to credibility” (p. 120), while Cherry (1998) distinguished ethos from “persona.” Showing the different histories of both terms, Cherry (1998) claimed that ethos involves the qualities and strategies of speaking and writing that gain trust in a community, audience, or readership, whereas persona is an artificially created identity the writer creates to effectively communicate. Brown (2009) also parsed the concept of ethos by separating it into situated and invented ethos: “One’s situated ethos precedes his or her text” (p. 245). In other words, it’s tied to the person’s reputation ahead of time. The other half, invented ethos, is created “within a speech or text . . . [t]hrough the use of certain tropes and figures along with various other textual strategies” (p. 245).
Establishing ethos online is particularly relevant to technical communicators. For example, how can technical writing teachers best nurture an ethos-building environment when teaching online? Building on Cherry’s distinction between ethos and persona, Pickering (2009) used activity theory to show how students in an online technical writing class developed ethos through interaction with the online class community, adjusting their online ethos building strategies (tone, grammatical correctness, how they disagreed with classmates) over the course of the semester to create a persona that was a better fit (or not) for communicating in the online environment.
Jo Mackiewicz (2010a; 2010b) focused on another online area of interest for technical communication: product reviews and how consumers establish their expertise and credibility. Her project extended through two separate articles, and, in her first article for that project, she classified assertions of expertise into three categories: “assertions of product-specific experience,” “assertions of familiarity with related and relevant products,” and “assertions of a relevant role” (such as having formal training in the product or having employment related to the product). As Pickering (2009) showed the creation of ethos and persona through social interaction, Mackiewicz’s second article on her project examined the role reader feedback and online interaction played in creating ethos. Essentially, Pickering (2009) and Mackiewicz (2010b) showed the importance of the social construction of credibility to technical communicators: It’s not just a one-way street where the communicator simply projects and doesn’t need to adjust his or her ethos based on the audience’s reception.
Credibility and ethos are important for technical communicators, because they are readily projected through online mediums such as social media and websites. Social media differs from websites, however. Social media is meant to be updated frequently, to be “live,” to be timely and even ephemeral in its content, and to grab attention through humor, entertainment, and wittiness, usually done using images/memes/videos/gifs and with minimal text. It’s also usually more mobile friendly. In fact, users can only use Instagram fully through the mobile app; Instragram.com does not allow for the uploading of pictures, for example. Some research (Bowdon, 2014) has shown that students, although familiar with social media through personal experience, often struggle to use it for professional organizations. Specifically, Bowdon’s (2014) research showed a failure to communicate “audience-centered, immediately relevant, locally focused information” (p. 43) in emergency communications disseminated through social media.
Website analysis similarly showed dysfunction when trying to create ethos. Spoel’s (2008) article suggested that the midwifery websites she analyzed don’t generate “communal and dialogic modes of communication with the public,” and instead “enact [a] primarily unidirectional consumption model” to establish ethos when establishing “professional identities, health-care relationships, and forms of community” (p. 264). In other words, quite unlike Mackiewicz’s (2010b) understanding of an ethos created socially in product review websites, many other business websites fail to engage their visitors in this manner.
Everett (2013), Alberts and van der Geest (2011), and Lanier (2017) have also written on how website design can directly lead to perception of a website’s credibility. Focusing on small businesses, Everett (2013) noted that folks without much training in website development or IT create and maintain these websites. This can cause problems when the website doesn’t meet visitors’ more professional expectations. Everett (2013) proposes working with the tools small businesses have available and offers Prominence Interpretation Theory as a resolution to help identify credibility issues and then improve the website’s credibility using this relatively simple and affordable method. Alberts and van der Geest (2011) also evaluate the credibility of websites via how different color schemes effect trustworthiness. Although the relationship between trustworthiness and a certain color is not universal, their study showed that blue and green were the most trustworthy colors in several contexts they evaluated.
Lanier (2017) examined websites through RWD (Responsive Web Design), the lens of the new “standard for mobile-friendly websites” (p. 7). Websites, of course, often appear differently in different browsers, and they can appear much differently depending on the device being used to view the site: “When RWD is used, the website loses information units, it loses graphics, and it changes formatting—these are not merely design differences; they are dramatic changes that potentially lead to significant differences in credibility” (p. 7). After highlighting variables that affect credibility on websites, Lanier compared the differences in appearance on “Full” and RWD websites. He then outlined some suggestions unique to RWD websites to improve credibility: “ensure that the sponsoring organization’s logo is placed prominently at the top of the page,” “allow the logo to remain in view” throughout their site browsing,” “ensure the author’s name, title, and perhaps even image is placed before the content,” and “[b]e calculating about the graphics you use in the RWD site” (p. 10). These last four sources (Bowdon, 2014; Everett, 2013; Lanier, 2017; Spoel, 2008) showed different ways of engagement in the field of technical communication to characterize and improve credibility in online mediums.
After reviewing the literature from the past several years, mostly in major technical communication journals, two trends appear in technical communication in regard to ethos: 1) Technical communication has specifically looked at the creation of ethos established in online environments. This research has specifically examined the creation of ethos in online technical communication, in organizational social media practices, in the creation of reputation and expertise building in online message boards of sorts, and in company and organizational websites. And 2) The concept of ethos itself has been complicated by comparing it to related concepts such as trust, trustworthiness, reputation, competence, credibility, and persona; dividing it into situated and invented ethos; and understanding the co-construction of ethos between audience and rhetor. Adding to this discussion of ethos in technical communication, this article identifies the importance of the rhetoric of business profitability and technological impartiality in orienting the ethos of broader electoral systems and processes.
The first part of this article provided a literature review to help technical communicators understand the contemporary history of ethos in technical communication. Analyzing elections technology companies allows us to examine a black boxed industry—an industry at the epicenter of legitimizing political power. To manage the scope of the analysis, this paper specifically looks at the “About” pages, the heart of a company’s digital ethos, because it describes the mission, scope, history, and expertise of the company to its clients and customers (in the American context these are largely state governments), investors, and perhaps some very inquisitive members of the public at large. These “About” pages introduce the company to clients, customers, and other stakeholders, and invites them to do business with the company. Their very purpose is to build rapport.
These three large and pervasive elections technology companies (Election Systems and Software (ES&S), Smartmatic, and Dominion Voting) are hardly household names, and a brief introduction to these companies will help familiarize readers to this small but important industry. By understanding how ethos is constructed in these spaces, technical communicators become more aware of the relationship between business, technology, and democratic government.
Ethos Building Through Business and Technology and the Reorienting of Democracy
To manage the analysis of ethos, I’ve selected “About” pages from ES&S, Smartmatic, and Dominion Voting (there referred to as the “Company” page). These pages remain the epicenter for how a company establishes ethos. “About” pages include a variety of information relevant to the construction of company ethos. They can present the company’s purpose, values, and history of the company, and biographical information about the people leading the company. While this page provides information and describes the company, it’s also a contact point to connect with customers and an important way to market the company. This page helps differentiate the company from its competitors by branding the company in a memorable way for visitors.
ES&S’s “About” page is organized into five sections: Mission, Vision & Core Values; Management Team; Our Pride, Our Purpose, Our Passion; ES&S Canada; and Careers (see Figure 1). The first section, “Mission, Vision & Core Values,” declares ES&S “is dedicated to providing valuable, trusted, and proven election equipment and services,” aims “to meet the needs of our customers,” and fulfills their “mission by delivering the highest standards of accuracy, security, and reliability in our election products and services” (para. 2). ES&S’s vision is “to maintain voter confidence and enhance the voting experience.”
ES&S uses other strategies, both visual and textual, to create ethos. A video on the “About” page (see Figure 2) shows hardworking employees, patriotic American images, and images of voting machines and ballots. The video carefully states that “our products aren’t about an ideology, not concerned with left, right, or middle. Our dedication is to supporting a tradition celebrated around the world. One person. One vote.” But at many other points, ES&S uses the rhetoric of business and technology to establish ethos. The “About” page tends to focus on appeals to business through values such as “providing valuable, trusted, and proven election equipment and services” and “customer service.” They also create ethos by emphasizing technology issues “by delivering the highest standards of accuracy, security, and reliability in our election products and services.” Connecting the mission of democracy to their technological savvy, they claim in the video that their business does the work “our forefathers envisioned centuries ago, though our methods are something they could’ve never imagined.” Finally, they appeal to their business reach: This part of the video highlights ES&S serving both large and small municipalities, urban and rural, and that 60% of Americans “cast their ballot on an ES&S system.”
Smartmatic shares many of the ethos building values that ES&S showcased in their page, including appeals to business to build ethos. Smartmatic emphasizes that the work they do helps create “political stability,” which benefits investors. In the “Vision and Mission” section, the final part of their four-part pledge aims to “[p]rovide the best products and services” and “to deliver the best products at the best prices.” In the video, the CEO of Smartmatic also points to an example of how a well-run election in the Philippines caused the value of the peso to rise.
Smartmatic also appeals heavily to technology to build trust and credibility in their elections technology products. The video (see Figure 3) embedded on the “About us” page highlights that “Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy” and that they have “developed innovative technologies to guarantee the efficiency and trustworthiness of elections.” In the “Vision and Mission” section, they boldly claim that “the future of democracy is digital.” And the first three parts of their four-part pledge all emphasize technology. They first pledge to “remain impartial and independent—technology is neutral and so are we.” They then pledge to “harness the full power of technology—to deliver reliable and accurate results, eliminating the possibility of human error.” Lastly, they pledge to “maintain the highest standards of transparency” and they “will keep inviting the public to audit and scrutinize our technology throughout the entire cycle of an election.”
Smartmatic also frames its company history in the “Our history” page through the lens of technology. Born soon following the 2000 U.S. election between George W. Bush and Al Gore and the hanging chad controversy that surrounded it, the company’s history focuses almost entirely on how they’ve advanced elections technology (e.g., making elections technology more secure but more transparent, utilizing technology in the registration process, growing fully digital voting methods) since then. This “moment of conception” is also when voting itself became un-black boxed for many Americans. Although voting has always been a problematic issue for some demographics, the “hanging chad” controversy showed how vulnerable the electoral system was to breaking down in mundane fashion, let alone due to political or socio-economic influences.
Smartmatic also promotes itself by showing how it operates in a variety of international contexts, highlighting work done in developed countries (e.g., the United States, Belgium) and developing countries (e.g., Venezuela, Brazil, Zambia, Mexico, and the Philippines). This takes us to Smartmatic’s appeals to expertise and other endorsements. One can see (see Figure 4) former President Barack Obama voting on a Smartmatic machine in Chicago, and former President Jimmy Carter is quoted in 2012 as saying that the Smartmatic voting system in Venezuela is “the best voting system in the world.” The company similarly includes voices from election officials in Argentina and voters in Haiti.
The rhetorics of business and technology, here and elsewhere, reconfigure the values of voting and indeed of the democratic process itself. They reframe the historical presentation of elections and voting, what it means to be “diverse” and other democratic values, by reorienting them toward the values of business and the inherent benefits of technology.
Dominion Voting’s “Company” page is organized into four sections (see Figure 5): Overview, Values, Management, and Employment Opportunities. In the first section, “Overview,” the first appeals to ethos use business rhetoric and technology. For example, the first sentence in the “Overview” section reads: “In today’s election market, Dominion Voting Systems sets itself apart with a commitment to customer service, convenience, and a superior use of technology to provide you with the best possible tools possible to meet your election challenges.”
This is followed by creating ethos through history by displaying an infographic timeline that spans 100 years of election technology history (note that the company was founded in 2003, directly in response to the 2000 American Presidential election). Appeals to business and technology intertwine in Dominion Voting’s “Company” page as the organization emphasizes that it’s a “results-driven organization” focused on customer satisfaction that focuses on electoral “success.” The history of voting connects directly to technological concepts such as “innovation,” “engineering,” “constant research,” and “development and quality control.” This appeal to progress focuses on technology but not on social concerns.
In addition, Dominion highlights four values that all appeal largely to the values of business and technology:
- Understanding the importance of efficient, secure and accurate elections
- Transparency and accountability in all that we do – on every level, for every election
- Standing by the services and products that we provide
- Striving for technological and service delivery excellence to meet today’s election challenges
The values emphasize efficiency, security, and accuracy; transparency and accountability; technologically advanced products; and a warranty of sorts. These four values further link appeals to business trustworthiness to technological savvy.
Through an examination of all three companies, one can see the prevalence and relevance of business and technology rhetorics building company ethos.
Elections technology companies provide researchers a significant space to examine the relationship between the rhetorics of business, technology, and democracy. Although elections technology companies appealing to business profitability and technological impartiality might seem natural since they are companies selling technologies, I argue this is going further than typical need, branding, and marketing. These companies are constructing a specific framework characterizing the democratic process. In creating an ethos around business profitability and technological impartiality that appeals to government audiences and investors, elections technology companies also reorient the rhetorical framework of democratic processes and institutions by legitimizing it through the principles of business profitability and technological impartiality. Moreover, elections technology companies are important actors in a larger conversation that helps to frame the democratic process.
Other companies and organizations are repositioning themselves and reorienting the conversation and framework about democracy more directed to the public. Hobby Lobby wasn’t afraid to launch a lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. Patagonia has come out harshly against President Trump’s slashing of the National Park budget and other infringements on the environment. And Burger King has even posted a YouTube video attacking Net Neutrality. In 2017, the National Football League, after years of the League working to ally itself with and build business and advertising relationships with the United States military, found itself embroiled in political issues surrounding player protests. Creating an ethos as a conservative company or a pro-environment company, or foraying into other issues, can increase brand awareness, loyalty, or trustworthiness in specific constituencies important to the business. In regards to elections technology companies, their more specific and non-public audiences allow for a different kind of reorienting, one that speaks directly to those who make decisions about voting and the process of democracy in their constituencies.
The ethos-building rhetorical strategies used by elections technology companies also use expertise, American metaphors, and American history to create trust in an audience evaluating and deciding on elections technology to carry out electoral processes and enact values. But technical communicators should pay attention to other significant frameworks used to create ethos. While Pickering (2009) and Mackiewicz (2010a; 2010b) showed the importance of adjusting ethos over time depending on social situations, I wonder how long appeals to business and profitability and technological impartiality have justified the use of electoral processes. Since the 1980s, there has been a reorienting of many First Amendment legal issues around the concepts of corporate personhood, giving free speech and religious freedoms to businesses (Liptak, 2018). Ultimately, these ethos-building strategies and the reorientations they cause can have profound implications for how democratic principles are conveyed and justified in a variety of other communicative situations.
These elections technology companies gesture to other appeals—for instance, expertise, American patriotism, and American history, and democratic principles (e.g., “one person, one vote”). But business and technological appeals significantly orient the ethos of elections technology companies. The claims of this paper hopefully encourage technical communicators to consider the following questions:
- What do we gain or lose by largely framing the democratic process in terms of business profitability and technological impartiality? How does this framework serve or not serve citizens of a democracy?
- When ethos is established via the rhetorics of business profitability and technological impartiality, what does this mean for decision making in democracy?
- What happens when voting procedures and institutions are outsourced? Does this result in democracy being “bid” on?
- How disruptive (both in good and bad ways) is this new voting technology?
- How can we create an ethos and other rhetorical voting frameworks that balance the needs of all stakeholders?
I believe that technical communicators and other writers are in positions to identify, create, challenge, and reconfigure frameworks of technology, business, and democracy both as practitioners and as critics. For example, website designers, content developers, and marketers can analyze “About” pages they are privy to or that interest them and identify relevant ethos-building frameworks for business, technology, democracy, or other frameworks and consider the ways they brand and position a company. Second, companies and organizations that do business with the government might be particularly interesting sites to analyze the relationship among metaphors, actors, and frameworks of business, technology, and the ideals of democracy. Ultimately, technical communicators can participate in identifying the roles business and technology can play in enhancing electoral integrity while also using technical communication and rhetorical theories.
- Whether voters understand what they are voting on (i.e., clarity) is an example of validity. In California, for example, “ballot junk” is a growing issue. California voters often have numerous measures to vote on, and some of them are arguably written to confuse voters.
- Whether the election captures the general will of the voters is an example of reliability.
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About the Author
Matt Bridgewater is an assistant professor at Woodbury University (Burbank, CA) in the Writing Department and is also ePortfolio Coordinator for the university. His current research interests include legal rhetoric, historical writing, and the rhetorical presidency. His most recent research has appeared in the journal Computers and Composition and the edited collection Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs by Utah State University Press. Please email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 15 February 2018, revised 1 July 2018; accepted 15 August 2018.