Last November, I walked into a Beyond Voting meeting at a bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I had just come from my local mailbox where, as a California native, I’d mailed in my absentee ballot. Disillusioned from the experience, I complained to Tiffany that there is better technology for finding good Italian food in my neighborhood than for helping me vote on public projects worth millions of dollars. All I knew about them was what I could read on one-page descriptions and brief explainer videos that I had to search for online.
As citizens living in the digital era, we have watched the digitization of just about every industry except for democratic processes and this has come with a cost. It’s harder for citizens to know if representatives are actually listening to their interests. And citizens, discouraged by the “runaway train” of modern politics, are increasingly retreating from politics overall. Fortunately, we are starting to see the emergence of tools and experiences designed to, “deepen the role of citizens in governance processes by increasing opportunities for participation, deliberation and influence”
Now, when you first hear “digital” you may recoil and think of social media’s questionable role in the 2016 US elections. But considering that those platforms were simply not designed to facilitate democratic decision-making, it’s no wonder they fell short. The challenge moving forward is to figure out how to build and use platforms that empower citizens to effectively communicate their interests and influence decision-making. Below, we’ll explore three websites that allow citizens to communicate better with their governing systems.
Countable.us makes it easier to know what your representatives are voting on, and to tell them how you think they should vote. For each upcoming bill, you can suggest a yea or nay to your representative via email or can even send video messages. Each bill also has a lively debate section so the yeas and nays can share, upvote their opinions and learn from each other. The result is seeing more informed and better arguments in favor of your preferences, and perhaps more importantly, against.
IssueVoter.us is similar to Countable in that you give your opinions to your representatives. But IssueVoter puts a different spin on it by giving you a “scorecard” highlighting how closely your representatives votes align to your preferences. The site is still new, so the functionality is not as great as it could be, but the concept is worth note.
Bang the Table focuses on engagement at a local level. They create civic engagement dashboards for cities that allow residents to stay informed and share opinions about city projects. They offer several levels of engagement, from simply dispensing information for the city to engaging citizens in collective discussions and decision making. Fayetteville, AR used them to make the engagement page Speak Up Fayetteville, which informed citizens about projects such as the Cultural Arts Corridor.
While none of these are driving massive change just yet, it’s easy to imagine how they could be enormously impactful if embraced at scale. First, they will all have to figure out how to design websites which are appealing enough to bring the masses, yet meaningful enough to benefit decision-makers. We’re stuck in the in-between phase where the internet is the most powerful communication medium, but we haven’t learned to utilize it for productive democratic purposes. Solving this problem will create massive new opportunities for government transparency, citizen participation, improved representation, and overall improvement of our Democracy in the 21st century.