Clearly, a voting advice system would have a resounding effect on democracy that would reverberate through the corridors of government. But is such a thing possible? Can we build it? And if we do, will people use it? The answer is, “Yes!”
Originally published 2004
One organization is already moving in that direction, fact. And two others are making progress on initiatives that bode well for the future:
- A similar effort is already underway that promises to implement many features of the voting advisory. That effort is being taken under the auspices of the Wisconsin Clean Elections campaign (http://www.wicleanelections.org/). It doesn’t do everything that the voting advisory wants to do, but it may well deliver 80% of the benefits for half the work. (The Wisconsin system will provide a place for non-profit watchdog agencies to post report cards on legislators’ voting records. The system will work for any state, and it gives voters “one-stop shopping” to evaluate legislators. It may not be helpful for evaluating newcomers, and it won’t provide the kind of statistics that make coalition-building possible, but it nevertheless represents an important development in the information-systems we need to make our democracy work.)
- “Clean Money” initiatives are making progress in several states. The goal is to limit the amount of money candidates spend, so they focus on message rather than relying on slick production and repetition. Such efforts don’t entirely eliminate money from politics, but they overcome its most egregious effects, since it limits corporate donations.
- “Instant Runoff” voting initiatives are making rapid headway throughout the nation. They appear to be spreading like wildfire, in fact. That’s good news for fans of real democracy.
We Can Make the System Useful Year-Round
At first, the Citizens’ Advisory will need to focus on assisting voters during elections. That’s more than enough to take on at first. But as the system meets its goals in that area, it can begin to expand in ways that make it useful every day. That keeps it in the public mind so that participation grows throughout the year:
- Tools for analysts. Eventually, the system can provide tools that make it easier for an advisor to justify their recommendations. The system can provide a report card tool that makes it easier for an analyst to rate candidates. By joining forces with organizations like, Project Vote Smart and Public Citizen, it can provide a fine-grained, easily-accessible copy of the public record, including congressional votes, sponsored legislation, interviews, and position papers.
(Making the material “fine-grained” means that analysts will be able to link into the middle of the documents to point to quotes or other material that supports their analysis. With such tools, analysts will be able to adjust their ratings throughout the year. Reporters, like everyone else, will have access to that record—and they’ll be able to find thoughtful analysts to interview.)
- Discussion forums. Discussion forums could allow voters, advisors, and potential candidates to discuss ideas and gather support, spreading the insightful thinking that is the basis of a thoughtful democracy.
- Collaboration spaces. Distributed authoring and decision-support tools could allow advisors to collaborate on ideas, platforms, and plans in order to maximize their impact.
- News feeds. The Citizens’ Advisory could become a broadcast channel for news and events that keeps voters tuned in throughout the year.
- Advisor alerts. At their discretion, voters could opt to receive ongoing report cards from watchdog agencies and other information from advisors, without having to make their address available.
We Have the Technology
The technologies we need to build the Citizens’ Advisory, as well as the technologies for the possible extensions, already exist:
- Its ranking system will work like Amazon, so that the best advisors gain more visibility.
- Providers offer information, and many others access it, something like eBay or smartVoter.org, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
- Its search engine will work like Google, to find good advisors quickly.
- Its advisor recommendations will work like a match-making service, to find compatible advisors.
- The ability to connect an address to a political district is a map-making capability like that found in MapQuest.
- Revising the lists of ballot measures and issues in each district is an undertaking on a par with the tax code revisions that Quicken makes each year.
In other words, what we need is nothing less than the Amazon / eBay / Google / MapQuest / MatchMaker / Quicken of voting-information and assistance systems. It’s hard, but it’s nothing new. The technologies exist. We can begin building it today. What we need is funding and organization.
We Can Build the Organization
The Citizens’ Advisory will require sophisticated software that will take a year or more to develop. But while there are no serious technical impediments to developing the system, it will eventually require leaders with the organizational skills necessary to run a major enterprise. So it makes sense to join forces with organizations like the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and Project Vote Smart.
Operation of the system can be funded by the people and organizations who register as advisors—for as little as $100 per year for an individual advisor, about the cost of hosting a web site through an Internet service provider (ISP). Organizations would be charged more, and would be allowed to have multiple people acting as advisors. That way, the system can be self-sustaining, yet free to the public.
The required software is complex, but can be built within the Open Source community. The major challenge is to list the candidates and ballot measures for each precinct, and to compile the addresses that belong in each precinct, adjusting them at the beginning of each decade when redistricting occurs. Fortunately, the League of Women Voters already captures that information as part of the database that powers www.smartvoter.org. So a partnership with them can reduce this otherwise imposing organizational obstacle down to an anthill.
Even when the system is fully developed and operational, the job won’t be done. It will take extensive marketing, public relations efforts, and word of mouth advertising to make people aware of the system, as well as a support staff to maintain it. And it will require a system that can scale up to handle a massive level of traffic when an election draws near.
Once completed, the Citizen’s Advisory should also move offline to expand its reach. It can start online, because that’s the most cost-effective way to begin. But until 100 percent of the nation has convenient Web access, the system must use U.S. mail in addition to the Web. The cost of doing so will be much greater, but that is the only way to ensure that universal participation can be achieved.
There are a number of reasons, then, to make sure that the Citizens’ Advisory is run by a non-profit agency:
- To ensure that universal participation is achieved using U.S. mail, even if that part of the system isn’t profitable. (While capacity or survivability may be acceptable reasons for delay, profitability isn’t.)
- To ensure subscriber anonymity.
- To ensure that fees are the minimum necessary to make sure that the system achieves its goals.
- So there is never any question of keeping excess money, but to deliver it instead to one or more philanthropic foundations or used to further the cause of a fully functioning democracy.
The process will take time, and it will take a lot of work. But it’s not rocket science. It can be done, and we can do it.
Learn more: Organizing a Voting Advice System
We Can Make Money Increasingly Irrelevant
The Citizens’ Advisory represents a potential sea change in American politics, but it won’t happen overnight. The effect of money in politics won’t disappear immediately, but it will dwindle over time as participation grows.
At the outset, with zero members, the situation will be exactly as it is right now—money controls the political process, and the Citizens’ Advisory has no impact. But suppose for a moment that 100 percent of the electorate were participating in the Citizens’ Advisory. At that point, money would be irrelevant to the political process. A lobbyist for an organizational advisor or coalition that represented 100,000 votes would be received warmly by a Congressional representative. A corporate lobbyist could well be left waiting—in the lobby.
Of course, it could take quite a while to achieve 100 percent participation. But the dwindling impact of money will be discernable long before then. Even with 30 percent participation, the impact of money in politics will be much less than it is now. Even at that level, we will be much better off than where we are now.
I suspect that a participation level of 60 to 70 percent is realistically achievable. That’s a worthwhile target. But the system could make a noticeable difference with as few as 10 percent of voters participating—because the system has such great appeal for swing voters, and much of campaign financing is devoted to reaching those voters.
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