We already have the technologies needed to implement a Voting Advice System. A bit of customizing is needed, but there is nothing radically new that needs to be developed.
Finding Sympatico Partners
I went to my first Planetwork meeting the other day, hosted by Jim Fournier and Anna Coronna. I felt like I had come home.
It gets lonely out here on the frontier, and there’s little than any one person can do — so it sometimes seems as though the problems we face are insurmountable. It was therefore a tremendously uplifting shot in the arm to find out that many people are working hard to address the issues.
Planetwork is interesting in that regard, because they position themselves at the intersection of technology, the environment, and social activism. That brings a diverse group of thoughtful individuals together who are motivated by humanitarian concerns. Like I said, I felt like I had come home.
I found out about the group because of my association with Douglas Engelbart and Eugene Kim, a fellow contributor to the Engelbart movement who formed Blue Oxen Associates—a think tank and spawning ground for collaboration systems and methodologies. It may well be that collaboration systems developed by participants in the Blue Oxen discussion groups will play a major role in bringing the Citizens’ Advisory together — because it turns out that many of the pieces we need already exist, as I found out at the Planetwork gathering.
Current Voting Technologies
The technology we’re currently using to bring this message is, of course, weblog (“blog”) technology. At the moment, I’m using WordPress.
The primary goal of a Voting Advice System, though, is to let people choose advisors they trust. The articles posted here are, in the main, devoted to showing why such a system is needed, the impact it will have, and how it can work.
When it came to building a voting advice system, one of the main stumbling blocks I saw was building an organization large enough to identify all of the candidates and issues that people could vote on in each state, county, city, and precinct. I figured that effort would be a huge part of the task.
Fortunately, I was wrong. It seems that the League of Women Voters has already done that — for California, at least. One of the sites they sponsor is Smart Voter, a system that lets you put in a zip code and get a list of candidates and issues you can vote on.
They even include links to organizations who make recommendations. Of course, only the major organizations are represented, as opposed to having a personalized list that has organizations you trust, regardless of size. But it’s a big step in the right direction.
The important thing, though, is that a database of voting information already exists. That gives us a model we can build on. We can work together with the League of Women Voters to share that data. Who knows, maybe we’ll wind up building the system under their auspices. That would be fine. It’s not about who gets the credit — it’s about enabling a real democracy.
Open Source Technologies
When it comes to the technology we desperately need to get the money out of politics — a voting advice system — we must use open source software.
The primary factor in that decision is not a matter of cost, but rather one of security. Oddly enough, open source software tends to be more secure than proprietary software, because more eyeballs are devoted to finding its flaws. In a proprietary system, an undiagnosed flaw can be exploited for a very long time.
One important issue in instituting such a program is to make sure that no one “games” the system—for example, by creating 10,000,000 false IDs so an can pretend they’re influential when the reality is that even their own grandmother isn’t listening to them. Basically, if we don’t make the system as nearly bulletproof as we can make it, we take away its potential to enhance democracy.
That kind of gamesmanship only goes so far. “Social comparison” algorithms will find others who like the same advisors you do. Advisors they’re following, therefore, are likely to be advisors you would like to follow, as well. (That’s the basic for music- and video-recommendation systems.) If no actual people are following a supposedly “popular” advisor, they’ll never appear in anyone’s list of recommendations! For the same reason, all those corporate-funded “Citizens for Fair Play” groups that pop up around election time will have little or no impact on voters.
Security issues generally center around authentication of advisors when they make recommendations, authentication of users when they select advisors, making sure that there is only one login ID per user, and ensuring the anonymity of users. Those issues could be addressed, in part, by software being developed by Fen LaBalme, Victor, and others at IdentityCommons, and Dave DelToro at CryptoRights.
These days, of course, social identities are maintained at organizations like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. As an example, you can use one of those identities to log into this site, to post comments. So much of the “social identity” problem has already been solved, with modular plug-ins handling the details, like the plugin installed at this site.
It may be possible to build the site using portal software, created by George Polisner at the 100 Year March. The interesting thing about his portal is that it can limit banner advertising to green companies who are good for the environment, as well as the economy.
One demo given by Ed Bice of The People’s Opinion Project showed a truly amazing international opinion poll that was generated and managed using an automated translation system. The results were pretty staggering. They showed that fully 75% of the world no longer trusts the American government, although the same number does trust the American people. The question, clearly, is whether the American people are in charge of their government, or whether it is the other way around.
Then there was the truly great map-based interface demonstrated by Will Doherty and Steve Enzer, of
Verified Voting Foundation. That project was pulled together in a matter of months (with long hours, I’m sure), using a variety of open source software listed at the Election Incidence Reporting System. (The fact that so much good open source software exists is a great boost for this project. And the fact that these fellows have experience with it and are funded to pursue such projects has great potential, as well.)
Other great resources listed on that site (all of which need to be investigated) include:
- Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
- National Committee for Voting Integrity
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Online Policy Group
Whew! And all that came from only one Planetwork meeting, out of 20. (At one time, there was an archive of past meetings in San Francisco, plus archives of meetings in the East Bay, Seattle, and New York. Who knows what treasures await us there!)
The Twitter Model
Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that Twitter presents the model for voting advice. Short tweets can be sent out by advisors on any subject, and only people that subscribe to that advisor get the advice. The twitter then only needs to be augmented to:
- Operate in a separate channel, so voting advice doesn’t mingle with other tweets.
- Use a set of agreed-upon hashtags, so a particular voting choice or ballot measure is uniquely identified.
- Store advice-tweets, so someone who looks for advice the day before an election gets all tweets made by trusted advisors.
- Filter the feed, selecting only those advice-tweets with hashtags that match the voter’s upcoming ballot.
Fortunately, the time is right to create a voting advice system. Much of the technology already exists and is well understood. Much of it is even freely available.
Originally published 2004
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