This voting advice FAQ answers the common questions people ask: How does it work, who will use it, what benefits does it provide, and will it really deliver.
1. What is a Voting Advice System?
A voting advice system uses social media in targeted ways, so that voters can inform each other. It also lets them get advice from organizations they trust. The system looks a lot like Twitter, except that individual ballot items are identified in a way that makes it easy to filter the stream of advice, so you see only recommendations you care about.
Since you get advice only from sources you’ve subscribed to, and since advice you’re not interested in is filtered out, the system is spam-free, and can be used to give and receive advice at virtually no cost.
2. Who Benefits from It?
The short answer is: Voters, political Analysts and other Advisors, and Society. The major benefits (convenience, outreach, etc) are described in Structured Twitter Feeds for Voting Advice, along with a quick look at how the system works. See that post for an operational overview and summary of benefits. Then come back here for more details, described below.
3. How does it work?
Although plans are open to change, the idea is to create something that works like Twitter — except that when you want to post a bit of advice, you first select the ballot item you’re referring to (for example, City Council for a city in Kansas). That’s the advice-giving app. It could run as a standalone utility on your computer, or run as a plugin in a WordPress blog, or some other web service.
How are ballot items identified?
As mentioned, the voting advice system looks a lot like a Twitter feed. The trick is to add hashtags that uniquely identify each item on the ballot. (There are may also be hashtags for #yes, #no, and the like.)
The trick to assigning those hashtags is to keep them unique, and to make sure that advisors and advice-recipients are using the same tags. The details are discussed in Voting Advice Hashtags.
Who assigns the hashtags?
The hashtags can be defined by regional groups, using a pattern that ensures there is no conflict between tags created by different groups. A non-profit foundation is needed to coordinate those efforts, as described in Organizing a Voting Advice System.
Another alternative is to use the Voters Edge APIs to get lists of candidates and ballot measures, and automatically convert those identifiers into hashtags. The hashtags are then stored on a central server (or ideally, on distributed servers, the way Google does it), so that hashtags used in advisory-tweets can be validated against the valid-hashtag list.
How do you get advice?
To receive advice, you’ll generally use an app that runs on a mobile device like a cell phone or tablet. That way, you can take it with you when you go to the polls. Alternatively, it could run on a desktop system, and you could use it to fill out a vote-by-mail ballot, or print out a cheatsheet to take with you to the polls.
As you find advisors you want to hear from, you’ll subscribe to their feed. You can also ask the system to to suggest advisors you might like.
How does the filtering work?
As at the Voter’s Edge site in California, Illinois, and New York, putting in your address and zip code downloads the series of hashtags that are relevant to the items you’ll be voting on. You could also select other races you’re interested in, to track that recommendations that are made for them.
When recommendations come in from sources you’ve subscribed to, they’re matched against your interest list. Any that aren’t a match are discarded. Any that are kept, so you can see them all at a glance.
When your interest list expands, the app polls your trusted sources to see if they have made any recommendations on those items. (For that reason, advice-giving apps store their recommendations, rather than simply discarding them.)
4. What is a “trusted advisor”? Who decides?
Like beauty, “trust” is in the eye of the beholder. As a voter, you have sources of information you trust — political analysts who make sense to you, organizations you directly support, and other organizations whose mission you applaud. When it’s time to vote, you would like to have all of the advice they have to give. And for ultimate convenience, you’d like to have it all in one place, so you don’t have to go hunting for it.
That’s what the voting advice system is, fundamentally. It’s a system that lets you identify the people and organizations you trust, and which gives them an easy way to reach you with relevant information!
On their side, the system makes it easy to give advice, knowing that you will see it only if it is relevant to you, as a result of your interest in that particular subject.
5. Who will use it?
The system has two components — one for giving advice, and one for receiving it. Every organization, political analyst, and reformer will want to use the system to give advice. At first, it will simply be a way to expand their reach slightly, at virtually no cost. But over time, it will become the best way they have to reach their followers.
As for voters, anyone who wants to get information they know they can trust will use the system. At first, it will simply be an addition to their existing information sources. But as their list of trusted sources grows, and they find that they are getting the information they need on every ballot item, large and small, the system will become the primary way in which you voters get the advice they need.
6. Can the system be hacked?
It is possible for any system to be disrupted, of course. But the system is designed to avoid a single point of failure, which makes it harder to do so. In particular, the nature of RSS feeds (the technical underpinning of the system) means that your advice-receiving client talks directly to an advice-giving server.
Since there is no one big server that is storing all of the advice, there is no single point of attack, once the system is in operation.
There is potential for disruption in the system that defines the hashtags that identify ballot measures. Such an attack could render the system inoperative for a time, so protections need to be put in place for that.
- Such an attack would affect only new programs that are accessing the system to get those hashtags. Older users who had already downloaded the required tags would not be affected.
- In any case, such an attack would not result in false information. It would only interrupt the delivery of information to intended recipients.
Of course, each system that is giving advice would be susceptible to hacking — in the same way that every server which runs a website needs to be protected. But to affect the outcome of an election, many such advice-giving sites would have compromised. Their very number and the fact that each has their own set of safeguards, therefore, makes it an imposing task.
7. What difference will the system make?
The system will make an enormous difference to society, because it can take big-$$ out of politics and rescuing government from lobbyists. It will also allow for greatly expanded participation.
Take Big-$$ Money Out of Politics
Right now, it is necessary to take campaign contributions to get elected. But to keep on getting them a candidate has to satisfy their donors. To do that, they must support legislation their donors like — the vast majority of which is written by lobbyists.
Not only that, but Big-$$ has more than one vote. In other words, Big-$$ does not have to choose, like you and I do. For Big-$$, it’s not either candidate A or candidate B. Big-$$ funds both candidates. So no matter who gets elected Big-$$ wins.
As to whether that is a problem or not, ask yourself this: “Is Big-$$ on your side?”. As most of our history shows, the answer in most cases is most likely, “No.”
There are organizations you support with donations — organizations who have a worthy mission you believe in, that you trust. An organization like Greenpeace makes a good example, but it could be your church or any other organization. They, as well as anyone and everyone you know who has a web presence, a social media presence, or traditional media presence, is suddenly empowered to make effective endorsements, all across the board, for small, large, and intermediate ballot choices.
In fact, The Voting Advice System democratizes the endorsement process. Click To Tweet Instead of being limited to a few large unions and media outlets, anyone who can create a Twitter account can create endorsements — but you hear only from people to care to hear from, and only on candidates and issues you care about.
Did you know that Greenpeace has 5 million members? They undoubtedly have a mailing list, too. But they couldn’t very well send an email recommending someone for City Council in Kansas that be spam for most everyone in their system. And what about some local measure that affects the water supply?
Of course, Greenpeace could track zip codes and the like, but that would still flood an area larger than they need, to reach the zip code participants who happen to be eligible to vote on that ballot item. But at that point they would have to devote part of their organization to something other than their core mission.
But with the voting advice system in place, the organization can make any and all recommendations they like, certain that everyone who gets it wants to hear from them, and wants their opinion on that particular subject, and that only those people are getting the advice.
Then there are small government watchdog organizations, who become capable of giving advice because the system costs about as much as a web browser (effectively nothing, in other words). And there are national political analysts who cannot devote their precious air time (or column space) to local issues, but who might nevertheless have something important to say.
Increased Voter Participation
Perhaps the number one reason for not voting is the feeling that, when it comes time to vote, one is under-informed. There are simply too many choices where you have no idea what is right. The result is a feeling of inadequacy and lack of confidence. Frankly, it is a significant challenge to your self esteem!
The only solution is to be well informed. Systems like Voters Edge make it a lot easier than it used to be, but you’re still limited to sources of information you did not select, and do not necessarily trust. A Voting Advice System makes the process even easier, and lets you choose your information sources.
The result is a sense of confidence, and a sense of pride. When you know you’re making the right choice, you’ll cast a ballot, no matter what. As a result, voter participation will skyrocket — especially in those small elections where, today, almost no one votes.
Elimination of “Hate Politics”
These days, selective voter participation determines election results. That’s why attack ads work. Some percentage of opposition voters believe them, and sit out the election. At the same time, potential supporters are galvanized to take action, and get to the polls.
That is why attack ads work. And because they do (today), they have become the norm. But with a system that gives people such confidence that everyone votes, attack ads will no longer have the impact they do today.
8. Will the system really be widely used?
To deliver the promised benefits and make a real difference, the system needs to be widely used. But will that really happen? Fundamentally, the answer boils down to the question, “Would I use the system?” If you would, then others would, too. And in that case, they system will be widely adopted. So let’s answer that question next.
9. Why would I want to use it?
One motivating factor would clearly be the ability to reduce the impact of campaign contributions on elections — and eventually eliminate it altogether. But at a personal level, such a system allows unparalleled convenience and completeness. It also lets you get accurate, trustworthy information — in other words, information that is closer to the truth than you are currently getting.
Convenience and Completeness
Perhaps you heard someone giving a talk or an interview, and were impressed by what they had to say — a representative of a watchdog agency, for example, or a social reformer. You listened carefully to what they had to say, and respected their opinion. Now it’s ten years later, and a local measure is on the ballot that is in their area of expertise. You’d love to hear from them, wouldn’t you?
Today, you’d have to remember the name of that person or organization, find them, hope that they had something relevant to say, and hope that you could find it. But with the voting advice system in place, you would have put their name into your list of “trusted sources”. Then when and if they did have something useful to say, you would hear about automatically it.
The more widely used the system becomes, the more advice will be available — which means that the day will come when you have all of the advice you need to vote intelligently on every ballot item, large and small.
Do you remember the “Clean Air Act” and the “Water Quality Act” put in place during the Bush administration? Both did the very opposite of what their titles suggested. They were loved by polluters and profiteers, while citizens were generally silent, because they were misled by the names.
When a ballot measure comes up with a name like that, the question is “What does it really mean?” You’ll want to know about the financial costs as well as the potential benefits. Most of all, you’ll want to know the truth — and you’ll only know you’re hearing the truth when you get it from sources you trust.
And what about that organization that pops up on your radar in support of the measure? And the other one that pops up, opposing it? Which one is really on your side? Which has a hidden agenda? How do you know?
The voting advice system lets you hear from sources you trust on all of the candidates and issues, large and small.
10. What if I don’t have a lot of advisors?
Everyone knows a few individuals or organizations they trust, whose advice they would like to receive whenever it is relevant. Once you’ve identified a couple of them, the system can help you find others, by identifying others who like the same sources you do, and by suggesting the sources that they trust.
It’s like the way Amazon recommends products you haven’t heard of, how Google finds search results, how YouTube finds videos you might like, and how music-delivery systems like Apple and Pandora can recommend music you would like. The system can use the same techniques to provide similar benefits.
11. Couldn’t I do it myself?
In general, it’s possible. There are ways to gather all of the information you need to vote at election time. But there are several questions to ask:
- Do you do that, for every election? (If so, congratulations! You’re unusual.)
- Do you get all the information you need for every candidate and ballot measure, large and small?
- Are you sure you’re hearing about candidates who have little or no funding?
- Do you hear from every organization you trust?
For example, can Greenpeace tell you how to vote for City Council?
They don’t now, because there is no spam-free way to do it.
But with a voting advice system they could!
12. I already get all the advice I need. Do I still need it?
Perhaps you are one of the well-intentioned people who keeps themselves informed. The most common sources of information include the candidate’s’ sites, the local newspaper/website, and the local parties’ sites. Perhaps you have found a way to collect that information automatically, to save yourself the trouble of going to every site individually. But lets examine your information sources!
- Your political party.
You’re not concerned that campaign contributions put them in the lobbyists’ pocket? So anyone they endorse has a ticket on the gravy train.
Candidates are not covered if they don’t advertise. They won’t endorsed be endorse either, under those circumstances. Wouldn’t make sense. So in today’s world, such candidate-wanna-bes are non-starters. (But that situation can change, with a voting advice system.)
So far, two of the three most common sources of information are an integral part of “pay to play” politics. (But since few realize it, the system continues. The alternative will make a difference, in time. It will adopted at first because it is convenient. But in time, the change will be apparent.)
But let’s continue:
- Candidate sites.
Can you really trust what the candidates have to say about themselves? Or more accurately, do you trust yourself to read between the lines well enough to discern the truth? If you think the answer is “Yes”, consider that Obama, Schwarzenegger, and Trump were all “on the side of the little guy”. But once in office, their actions proved different. But how could you have known that, going in? How could any alternative candidate ever have become viable, if their entire career depended on taking donations?
- Other organizations you trust.
Then there are the organizations you’re not hearing from. Those organizations could be giving you advice, but don’t because of the spam factor or the cost, or both. Organizations like the one that issues a yearly report card for senators, and other watchdog agencies. Or organizations you donate to because you agree with their mission. (Greenpeace, for example, with its 5 million members.)If you’re not concerned that you don’t get advice from them, its because you think the advice you do get is sufficient. But hopefully you have begun to see that the advice you have been getting is part of the problem!
13. Will this system really take the money out of politics?
It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen — and probably sooner than anyone expects. The basic process is this:
- As the system becomes more widely used, advertising will matter less and less.
- As advertising matters less, campaign contributions will matter less.
- When it becomes apparent that campaign contributions are no longer having the desired effect, they will dry up.
- When campaign contributions no longer determines who wins an election, elected representatives will spend more time satisfying constituents, and less time satisfying lobbyists.
The effect will probably be seen first when it comes to ballot measures. Think about those great-sounding organizations that pop up to push or prevent a single ballot measure (“Citizens For or Against S0-and-So). The one that has been around awhile will have gathered a following. The one that was created by Big =$$ will have no following at all. As a result, the voting will be determined by the advice network, rather than by ads.
At first, of course, the system will just be an easy way to reach people who are interested enough in the organization’s advice to subscribe. But as usage becomes more widespread, organizations with a following will find that they are winning more and more, while spending less and less.
The process could take 6 months, a couple of years, or 10 years. It all depends on the viral adoption curve. The number of advisors and the number of users will need to grow simultaneously, and continuous outreach will be needed to let them know it exists. Whether it happens slowly or quickly depends on the quantity and quality of the outreach. But it will be inevitable.
As the system grows more popular, advertising dollars will matter less and less in candidate races, as well. The first time a candidate gets elected after spending essentially zero dollars, the current system of campaign contributions will begin to topple. That’s probably the point at which the exponential growth curve goes vertical. Campaign contributions will become irrelevant soon after.
14. How does the system empower centrist candidates?
One of the effects of the system is to make party primaries much less important. And that can only be a good thing for democracy, because party primaries in a two-party system have us lurching back and forth from left to right, like a drunken sailor.
- To win the Republican primary, you have to appeal the right-wing extremists like Tea Partiers as well as people in the center-right. Any candidate who does so successfully is automatically right of center.
- To win the Democratic primary, you have to appeal to left-wing liberal extremists, as well as to the center-left. Any candidate who does so is automatically left of center.
- When you cast your vote today, then, you are always choosing someone who is well to the left of center, or well to the right. You are never choosing someone who is rarely in the center.
But research into the what is called the wisdom of the crowd reveals that any large block of people invariably gravitates toward the center, when given a range of choices. That’s why primaries in a two-party system are so bad! Instead of choosing among a block of candidates who cover the political spectrum, each side choose among candidates who cover only the left or right side. Each side chooses the center of their range, and then everyone has to choose one or the other.
Now then, at the moment a huge amount of money must be spent on advertising to win an election. In addition to mainstream media, phone lines must be manned and handbills must be spent out. All of those efforts take money, lots of it. And they take organization.
Because of the huge startup costs, third-party candidates have virtually no chance. Only by connecting with one of the two primary parties does a candidate have any chance of success. But making that connection automatically puts a candidate on the gravy train, and into the lobbyists’ collective pocket.
As the advice-network grows, money is taken out of the equation, and more candidates become viable. Eventually in fact, it becomes possible for a candidacy to succeed with virtually no spending at all! As we get closer to that day, voters have a broader spectrum of candidates to choose from — and they will dial in on the most centrist of those candidates, regardless of how the primaries went.
The reason for that simple fact is that independent voters don’t care about parties. They want the best candidate, and they want advice they can trust to identify that person. So if there trusted sources say to select candidate “A”, they’ll vote for “A” regardless of which party they’re in, and regardless of whether or not they won their primary.
For example, in 2016 Bernie Sanders narrowly lost the Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton. But arguably, most people who wanted to take the money out of politics preferred Bernie. The same could be true of Republicans, who elected Donald Trump in preference to Hillary, on the perfectly understandable theory that, as a self-reported billionaire, he was above such things.
It turns out they were wrong of course. But as written up in Why Hillary Lost, no one can blame them for thinking that — because clearly a vote for Hillary was a vote for business-as-usual, which had been screwing middle America by the numbers (and which continues to do so).
With a voting advice system, it could well be that disaffected middle-America Republicans who voted for Trump would have voted for Bernie, instead. And it could well be that liberals who disliked Clinton’s secret meetings with Wall Street would have voted for Bernie, as well.
It is entirely possible that those two blocks of voters would have been sufficient to elect Bernie Sanders, regardless of the fact that he lost the Democratic primary to Hillary — or perhaps because of it!
15. Can the system enable multi-party politics?
Yes. In a very real and substantive way. In the first place, as the advice network grows, 3rd-party candidates can actually become viable, even if they’re not spending a lot of money. But in version 2.0, the system can do even more.
The capability has to wait for version 2.0, because a lot of security is required to ensure that anonymity is preserved. That’s one reason the project needs to be open source, too — so there are thousands of eyeballs to identify and fix security gaps.
But here’s the logic: IF you and I could find out how many people we influence between us, WITH NO OVERLAPS (but do it in a way that preserves anonymity), THEN we would be in a position to determine when settling on a joint recommendation is likely to determine the outcome. So we (perhaps in combination with others) could form a multi-party coalition that would succeed at the polls.
It would happen in small races, at first — for example, city council for a city in Kansas. And it would be necessary to make sure that no number less than 100 is ever reported — so numbers from 0 to 100 are treated as a single value. (After all, in a small enough community, letting it be known was one person in favor of a particular idea could be tantamount to a betrayal of privacy).
Over time, though, such coalitions could form in even larger races.
16. Who Else is Working in this Area?
The California Voter Foundation provides a fairly extensive list. At the time of this writing, here’s what’s on it:
- Voters Edge (from Maplight and the League of Women Voters of California)
- Easy Voter Guide
- League of Women Voters of California Education Fund (launched SmartVoter and other voting-education initiatives)
- SmartVoter (from the League of Women Voters — now merged into Voters Edge)
- Guide to Judicial Elections (from the League of Women Voters)
- Project Vote Smart
- Rock the Vote
- Election Administration Research Center (EARC) at UC Berkeley
17. Who Can Make it Happen?
At the moment, I see a consortium of folks who have the skills and motivation to build the system:
- Secretary of State for California/New York/Massachusetts/Vermont
I was recently contacted by Ruben Major, candidate for California Secretary of State. He is not taking corporate donations, and wants to promote public elections. But the big news is that the Secretary of State is responsible for election systems and processes. So they are in a position to help establish ballot hashtags!
- The folks at SmartVoter, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Technologists who pioneered the kind of system that Voter’s Edge took over, and who have the skills and experience to undertake the next major challenge.
- Voters Edge
These folks have put together a really nice website. There are some usability issues that would make it easier to find things, but it’s early days yet (and they have been alerted!). But one really nicely feature of their site is that you can click a button to make your choice. You can then go to “My Choices” to get a list of all the choices you made, and then print it or send it to your device. Really cool. Something like that is needed in the Voter’s Client program. It makes informed voting easy!
- Twitter / Google
Twitter already has the system created, and APIs for accessing it. Ideally, a separate channel would be created that was strictly for voting advice — and to check advice-tweets for valid hashtags. Then it’s a matter of creating filtering clients and storing voting-advice Tweets so they can be accessed any time. Meanwhile, secure distributed storage that is shared across many servers around the globe is something that Google excels at.
- The Sanders Institute / Our Revolution
Bernie Sanders is right when he says that it makes no sense to create a whole new party, when there is already one at hand. But at the same time, these folks know that is necessary to return the DNC to being a “party of the people”. It is not every day that someone with Bernie’s charisma comes along to galvanize a plethora of small donations. In the absence of such a force, and when times get tight, the DNC will not be able to outspend Wall Street and mega corporations. During those times, Main Street will suffer — slightly at first, then increasingly, until after a couple of decades we once again find ourselves where we are today. There is only one long-term solution: We must ensure that elections do not depend on money. Click To Tweet
18. How Long Will it Take to Make a Difference?
Like any chicken-and-egg proposition, it will take a bit of time. The more people who are using it to give advice, the more people will want to use it to get advice. And vice versa.
The good news is that adoption will be viral. At first, a small core of users will adopt it. It will grow slowly at first, and then explode exponentially as it’s utility becomes apparent.
Adoption can be hastened with a serious marketing/outreach campaign.
Phase I of the outreach process courts those who would like to see our political system free of corporate money, so it is no longer owned and operated by massive campaign contributions. In that phase, we solicits the organizations above, who have the means to build the system. In that Phase, we also target potential advisors, both to increase awareness and to solicit funding to build the organization.
In Phase II, starting a year before an election, a wider net is cast among potential individual and organizational advisors, to show them how the system operates and the advantages it gives them. That phase focuses purely on the benefits they derive, and shows how we will help them reach their followers to get started, with publicity campaigns, and by providing text and images they can use in Tweets, emails, and direct-mail campaigns.
A couple of months before an election, citizen-outreach begins. That’s Phase III. That campaign stresses the benefits for voters. It consists of press releases and interviews. The combination of that campaign, plus campaigns by organizations and advisors, will promote rapid adoption.
- You are on the Greenpeace mailing list, and you see a small article or blurb that advises you to install the voting-advice app.
- You are listening to your favorite podcast, and they suggest it.
- You are reading an op-ed from your favorite analyst, and they tell you get it.
- You see it covered in a PBS news show.
- Then you see a PSA (public service announcement) on late-night TV.
How long before you get it? Especially when electioneering pamphlets are landing on your doorstep, and you’re quite certain that you have no idea which of them you can really trust!
At that point, it really begins to take off.
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