Social Media Voting-Advice Systems

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Political Reforms

When you’re losing, change the game. That’s the first maxim of game theory. Corporations have been “gaming the system” for decades. It’s time to change the game, so the political system once again values people more than profits. Doing so could restore the tremendous economy and high standard of living of the 1950’s, while retaining the benefits of modern technology.

Originally published 2004

As good as the previous proposals sound, as healthy as they would be for our democracy, what are the chances of ushering them in? Progress is being made, but it is slow going. On the one hand, entrenched political interests do not willingly give up the reins that let them direct the course of our nation — unlike George Washington who, by that very act, is responsible for establishing a republic in these United States, instead of a monarchy.

Evaluating the Odds

So politicians and the entrenched interests who lobby them are a major obstacle to progress. But politicians are only the first obstacle to progress. The giant conglomerate corporations whose lobbyists flood the walls of Congress will not suffer changing a system after spending 50 years and billions of dollars to bring it under control — a system which they now have running to their satisfaction.

Note: Corporate leaders who want to act responsibly need government, because government can exercise uniform constraints across an industry. Without uniformity, a corporation that attempts to exercise long-term vision can find itself at a competetive disadvantage. For example, a company that goes out of its way to prevent pollution will tend to have a lower profit margin than one that doesn’t. Government can create constraints, either by providing sanctions or economic incentives in the form of “pollution credits”. However it does so, applying the rules to all corporations removes the economic disincentive for any single corporation to behave responsibly. But the sad fact is that responsible corporate leaders are a minority that have been consistently out-maneuvered by lobbyists for more profit-hungry operations in American politics.

Given that corporations are currently in control of the political process, how would we succeed in making changes that reduce or eliminate that control? How, indeed, when recent changes in the law show a disturbing trend towards favoring the corporation at the expense of the public — for example, legislation that makes it harder to declare bankruptcy and exempts credit card debt from those proceedings, while doing nothing to curtail usurious interest rates of 30 and 40 percent that can be retroactively applied, so that higher rates are applied without warning to a credit balance that was originally incurred at a lower rate.

One attempted solution has been to limit the size of campaign contributions that a political organization can make. But while helpful, such measures fail to take into account the fact that large amounts of money are still needed to win an election.

As well intentioned as such measures have been, then, they have fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences: Reducing contribution limits for political organizations has turned politics into a rich man’s game. And since rich men tend to favor corporations somewhat more than your average citizen, however intellectually rich, those measures have not succeeded in achieving their intended goals.

What is the Truth? How Do You Know?

In addition, such solutions do nothing to address the problem of “sound bite politics”. What politician, after all, could afford to vote against a “Clean Air Campaign” or a “Healthy Forest Initiative”? The fact that those bills achieve the opposite of what their names suggest is virtually irrelevant to their campaign prospects. If they voted against such bills, their opponents in future elections would trumpet that fact unmercifully — and always at the last minute, when it was too late to explain the situation to the voters. Only the truly discerning and those with a long memory would know that the opposing that bill was a wise decision. The majority of the electorate, on hearing such news, would form the wrong impression — just as their opponents intend.

We saw that problem in the 2004 election, when John Kerry tried to explain his nuanced positions. I voted for bill X, because it was a good idea. But I voted against bill Y which attempted to do much the same thing, because it was going about it in the wrong way. Any thinking person might well have done the same. But his opponents labeled him “wishy washy” because he would vote “for” a thing one time, and “against” it a later time.

But the truth is in the details! You’re not voting for a “healthy forest”. You’re voting for a specific set of practices that will or will not achieve those goals. So a vote against a Healthy Forest Initiative can make a lot of sense. But in an era of sound bite politics, it takes too long to explain. That kind of vote can kill a politician’s political future.

We must, therefore, make money irrelevant to the process. We must make it possible to elect candidates based on thoughtful analysis, rather than 5-second sound bites. But how do we do that? How do we get the information we need to make an informed decision? When we do our homework and acquire the information we can find, how do we know whether or not the analysis is accurate? Who do we trust?

But more importantly, how many people have the time, energy, or inclination for that kind of thing? We all vote. But how many of us do that kind of in-depth analysis? Even if we’re close enough to a couple of issues or candidates to make an informed decision, how many of us do that kind of research for every candidate and ballot measure that we’re eligible to vote on?

And even if we did, what would be the point? If millions of people vote, what’s the difference whether a few people gather all of the information needed to vote intelligently? And in what possible world is there enough time or energy for one of them to be you?

Frankly, you shouldn’t have to do a ton of research to vote intelligently. You should see a specialist.

Voting Advice Systems to the Rescue

You see a specialist when your car needs service. Why wouldn’t you go to a specialist for advice on how to vote? You don’t go to just one specialist, either. You wouldn’t use the same person to repair your car, fix your plumbing, fill your teeth and mow the lawn. In the same way, you need to depend on many services (voting advice services, in this case) for advice on how to vote.

That is the fundamental principle of an “advice system”. You have a list of things that you’re eligible to vote on. Advisory services send out recommendations to their subscribers. You subscribe to services you trust, and you automatically get their recommendations on every issue you’re eligible to vote on.

I have outlined one possible implementation in my Voting Advice System pages, but there could well be other options. (To be most effective, there should be a single system that everyone uses. But multiple systems could complete, the same way there are multiple railroad systems). Of course, there are also different road systems (federal, state, and local). But as long as they all interact with one another, things are fine.

Note for technologists: The subscription service can be implemented using RSS feeds and structured XML content. The aggregator does the matching. Out of all the recommendations the subscriber is sending, the aggregator displays the ones that you can vote on.

Note, too, that the technology underlying the system is policy-neutral. It can be used by anyone, no matter where they are on the political spectrum. The system simply serves to take money out of the equation, so that it is ideas and thoughtful analysis that matter, rather than finances.

The system solves a problem for those who do the analysis, too. The only way they can be effective is to reach people and communicate with them. By themselves, their vote is virtually insignificant. But if they can reach large numbers of people they can persuade, their analysis can be priceless. The advice network gives them a way to reach large numbers of people at effectively zero cost — once again taking money out of the equation.

The advice network lets you subscribe to every individual and organization you trust, and get every recommendation they make. If you like Greenpeace, for example, and they have a recommendation on your local dogcatcher, you probably want to hear about it. With an advice network, you do.

Finally, all of the advice you get is collected together in one place, where it’s convenient. If all 10 of your trusted advisors are for a particular candidate, it’s a no-brainer. If 3 are one side and two are on another, it’s time for some investigation — but right there, along with their recommendations, are links to pages that explain the reasons. So you don’t have to go far to get more information. It’s right there at your fingertips.

The voting advice network makes money virtually irrelevant to the political process, because voters get the kind of thoughtful advice the need — advice that can be supplied at virtually no cost other than the investment in doing the analysis.

When Will We Notice an Effect?

If everyone were using that system, money would be automatically irrelevant. But that’s a long road to travel. What is perhaps more spectacular is that money can be made irrelevant to politics when as few as 10 percent of the voting population is using the system.

It is a truism that in most American elections, 45% of the people vote Republican and 45% vote Democrat. There is a variation here and there, but that’s the standard model. That leaves 10 percent of the people — the independents — who determine the outcome of any election which has not been effectively pre-decided by gerrymandering or incumbency.

Independents make up their mind at the last minute. Some are thoughtful analysts. They would love the voting advice network because it puts information at their fingertips. Others care very little about politics. They tend to get involved very late in the process, and make a last-minute decision. They would love the system for it’s convenience, and for the comfort of knowing that they are making the best possible decision, as recommended by people and organizations they trust.

In other words, the very people who tend to determine the outcome of a contested election are those who would be quick to adopt the voting advice network. Penetrating into that ten percent alone would be sufficient to restore thoughtful democracy, virtually eliminate the impact of money, and wrest our legislative bodies away from corporate control.


All of the reforms described in this paper are important. But they all face the same major hurdle: They must work within the current political system to achieve their goals. That is a slow and arduous process, and the outcome is anything but certain. Were that system capable of correcting it’s flaws expeditiously, it would already have done so. And given the immanence of the global warming peril, anything less than “expeditious” change may arrive too slowly to do us any good.

Voting advice networks solve that problem. They make money irrelevant to the election equation, giving ordinary people and “watchdog” organizations a stronger voice in the running of government, curtailing the influence of those who put profit before all else.

Voting advice networks can be fostered with the appropriate technology. They operate outside of the existing political system, where they are less limited. Then they reaching in to the system to make adjustments. At first, those adjustments will happen at the polling booths. But as their influence grows, legislators who are cognizant of their effects will become increasingly responsive to voters — because watchdog groups have long memories, and their power to influence an election will be dramatically enhanced. In short, voting advice networks give proponents of change a powerful mechanism to achieve their goals, in ways that do not require excessive amounts of money.

The “net effect” of such a system will be of immeasurable value to society. It’s a system we know how to build. We have the technology. We have the design. We need only commit ourselves to building it.

Learn more: Voting Advice System pages

Copyright © 2004-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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