Structured Twitter Feeds for Voting Advice

Structured Twitter Feeds for Voting Advice

Structured Twitter feeds, filtered and stored, could be the basis for a comprehensive voting advice system that makes Big Money irrelevant to elections.

With a voting advice system based on structured Tweeter feeds, users and organizations can give voting advice as easily as they write a Tweet, using hashtags predefined for that purpose.  As a voter, your program automatically stores the advice-tweets you care about, so they’re all in one place when you need them.

By gathering Tweets only from trusted (subscribed) sources, you get advice only from sources you want to hear from. By filtering out irrelevant advice-Tweets (for races you care nothing about), you get advice on subjects you care about. By storing those Tweets until you need, all of the information you need to vote in an intelligent, informed manner is all together, in one place, and easily accessed.

With such a system, advertising becomes irrelevant to elections — because all of the advice they need is delivered directly to them, from trusted sources. As advertising becomes less relevant, so do massive campaign contributions — making our representatives once again responsible to the voters who elected them, rather than to the advertising dollars that bought those votes.

Value Proposition for Voters

The value proposition for voters is this:

  1. You always know how to vote.
    When there are enough users in the system, it removes the embarrassment of not having any idea how to vote. For every item on your ballot, there are one or more trusted advisors who are giving you their opinion.
  2. You stay in touch with advisors you like.
    Once you have found some person or organization whose opinion you like, you automatically get their advice year after year, election after election. You don’t have to go looking for them, first at Bernie Sanders’ site, then at Greenpeace, then at David Leonhardt (N.Y. Times Op-Editor) — or your pastor, or whomever.
  3. You only get advice you care about.
    They’re free to tweet about ballot choices in any town or city they choose. But you, of course, you care about the ballot choices in your city. The hashtag system makes it possible to filter out the recommendations you don’t care about, so you get only those that concern you. (Plus any that you are interested in, for whatever reason.)
  4. Their advice comes to you.
    You don’t have to look to see if they have anything to say about small, local ballot choices. (How could they?) But if they did, and if you cared about that ballot item, you would get their advice.

How it Works, in 12 Steps

Here’s how it works:

  1. Every ballot choice across the country (in the world, even) has a unique identifying hashtag. (e.g. #2020_Nov_US_President, or maybe #US_President_2020_Nov)
  2. The structures are predefined for every possible locale and voting choice. Say: US_SENATE_CA, US_REP_CA for national level, and something similar for state, county, parish, municipality, or whatever. (For a detailed analysis, see  Voting Advice Hashtags.)
  3. In the structured Twitter feed, you choose only pre-defined hashtags, or hashtags that match that structure. Ideally, those tags would have their own feed, to keep from cluttering the Twitter-verse. But to get started, it would b entirely possible to automatically add #VotingAdvice to every Tweet. Client apps could then filter out everything that lacks that tag.
  4. Predefined tags could include #VoteFor, #VoteAgainst, #VoteYes, #VoteNo. Over time, general tags could be added like #Announcement. Such tags would allow for widespread messages (like email), but would allow recipients to filter out that kind of message, should they desire.
  5. You still get 140 characters for a message, but hashtags don’t count towards the total. You can also provide a link for add’l information. That doesn’t count towards the total, either.
  6. People subscribe to sources they want to hear from, just as they do now.
  7. However, client programs that read the feeds can also filter the streams, so only “items of interest” are displayed.
  8. The interest-list is determined by your zip code and street address. That’s the information you used to put into a site like VoteSmart (for California) or now put into its more recent (and more widespread) incarnation at VotersEdge). In return for that information, you get a list of upcoming ballot measures. Each item in that list is a link to a page that lists endorsements from If you examine the links that go to your choices, you see a hierarchy that looks like this: https://…/CA/stateSenate/Polly_Politician. That folder hierarchy is, essentially, a unique identifier that is equivalent to a hashtag.
  9. Having configured your client with your zip code and mailing address, the system can automatically list all upcoming ballot choices posted by some agency like the voting-information site mentioned above. (At a minimum, the system could “scrape” the pages at that site, to automatically generate hashtags.)
  10. Your client then filters your feeds, saving all of the posts with hashtags that match your upcoming ballot choices.
  11. An additional aspect of the system is that posts are not as transient as Tweets. The client saves all posts that pass the filters, so when you open it the night before an election, you see everything you care about.
  12. At the same time, all posts are stored on centralized servers. (Google would be a natural for this.) Every client that has been in operation (and therefore saving posts) can then “phone home”, to:
    1. Get any posts of interest that it missed (perhaps it was offline at the time, or had not yet been installed), and
    2. Verify that the posts it has seen are identical to the ones stored on the server (thereby serving as a defense against server hacking. If there is a discrepancy, the client can notify system operators.)
      To be solved:
      If you change your recommendation, a client may have saved the original post, without having seen the later one. That would create a false “hacker alert”. Timestamps could be used to prevent that problem, but that solution would make it possible for a successful hack to reverse existing recommendations. (To counter that, when a discrepancy is observed, the system could query the original author. If they confirm they change, it is marked as validated and they are not asked again. If they disconfirm it, an error flag is raised.)

Value Proposition for Analysts and Advisors

The value proposition for potential advisors is this:

  1. For analysts, the Voting Advice System enables outreach
    People can easily subscribe, without having to find a particular website and sign for emails. Just like Twitter, putting in a name initiates a search that brings up a matching Twitter address.
         Once subscribed, the analyst can easily stay in touch. For example, I once heard an interview given by a Congressional oversight group (a “watchdog” group of some kind). That was decades ago, and I’ve long since lost touch. With a Twitter-like system, I could still be hearing from them.
         Or perhaps there is an analyst in the media whose thoughts you like. The system makes it easy for you to find them, and for them to reach you. So it can be used by individual analysts, as well as organizations.
  2. The system enables targeted recommendations.
    It’s spam-free system. Currently, advisors can use email or a standard Twitter feed to reach all of their followers. But with email, a recommendation for City Council in Sequoia is spams for most of their followers. With the hashtag system, they can broadcast as easily as sending an email, secure in the knowledge that only those who care about a particular recommendation will get it.
  3. The system creates new advisory organizations.
    The capacity for maximum effective outreach and the ability to make targeted recommendations makes it useful for others who have something to say, as well, be they politicians, churches, or organizations like Greenpeace. Politicians, of course, are in that business. They may well be some of the systems first users. But the ability to make targeted recommendations makes it possible for other organizations to become economically and effectively political, at a grass-roots level.
         For example: Greenpeace has more than 5 million members. You live in San Mateo. GreenPeace can’t currently recommend a city council member in San Mateo without spamming at least 5 million people. And with thousands of recommendations they might want to make, that’s a ton of spam. With this system, they can make recommendations all across the board, secure in the knowledge that only their followers will see their posts, and that their followers will see only the posts they care about.
  4. The system democratizes the endorsement process.
    Instead of being restricted to 5 or 6 major unions and news outlets, anyone can make an endorsement, the same way anyone can post a webpage or make a Tweet.
  5. The system promotes new analysts.
    The democratized nature of the system makes it possible for new analysts to be heard and become known. Right now, the only ones you know are in the major media. Almost by definition, they are great. (That’s why they were selected.) But could well be other great analysts who haven’t been selected for that high honor. A Twitter-like system makes viral adoption possible because, when you re-Tweet a recommendation, followers of yours can become followers of theirs, as well.
  6. It provides an accurate measure of advisor influence.
    Anonymity must be preserved, so it would not be possible to find out who is following. But it would certainly be possible to determine where those followers are geographically located. (To preserve anonymity in smaller geographic areas, the smallest reported number would be “less than 1,000”.)  It is therefore possible to measure the advisors influence in a particular locale, as well as their overall influence. (The numbers would unfortunately be inflated by those who might be using recommendations as part of a “what to vote against” strategy, but that problem is unavoidable.)
  7. Thoughtful advisors become power brokers.
    Plato dreamed of the day when philosophers ran the kingdom. With the Voting Advice System, a similar vision becomes a potential reality. As noted in every day since Plato wrote, philosophers (who focus on thinking) are different in nature from politicians (who focus on getting things done). But with the Voting Advice System, thoughtful advisors who express themselves clearly can gather enough of a following to make a big difference at all levels: local, state, and national elections.
         It therefore becomes possible for the brightest and best minds to determine policy, without being burdened by the need to actually govern. Since those activities require distinctly different (albeit overlapping) skill sets, society gets the best of each.

Value Proposition for Society

With enough users, all of the advice you need to vote intelligently (or at the very least, in an informed manner) are at your fingertips. The benefits for society, at that point, are these:

  1. Advertising becomes effectively irrelevant to campaign outcomes. 
    As a result, massive campaign contributions become effectively irrelevant. Elected officials will then have to govern on behalf of the people who elected them, rather than on behalf of the contributors who, in essence, bought the votes. (The number of ways in which society benefits are legion. Whole books have been written on individual aspects of the problem. The sheer volume of those books testify to the magnitude of the problem — and more remain to be written.)
  2. The system enables multi-party politics.
    If the system can determine how many followers you have in San Mateo, and how many followers I have then (if anonymity can be preserved) it can calculate the union of those two sets — in other words, how many combined followers we have, without counting anyone twice.
         The ability to get those numbers means that effective multi-party politics can be enabled in cyberspace. Coalitions can be formed to elect a satisfactory candidate in any given locale. Those coalitions can be identified with a small investment of time, but without requiring any substantial investment of money. So several influential advisors, by putting their heads together, could effectively determine the outcome of an election.
  3. Effective advisors could be outside of existing power structures.
    But perhaps the most significant benefit for society is that those influential advisors would not have to be part of the political process themselves. They would not have to be candidates, or excel at anything other than being thoughtful and persuasive.
         Like a free press, therefore, the system would therefore act as a check on otherwise unfettered political power. And given the decline of the press, it is arguably the case that such a system is needed now more than ever.
         True, there is the significant problem that demagogues could determine the outcome of elections with arguments that rest on emotional appeals rather than reason. So evangelicals, for example, could wind up with undue influence. But that possibility is ameliorated by the democratization of the advisory process. An emotional appeal works best when it is the only voice you hear. That’s how propaganda works. But a free press gives you multiple sources of information, which serve to counteract the lies that unethical emotional appeals generally rest on.
  4. Voter participation is massively increased.
    It starts small, of course. But over time, more and more people use the system to get the information they need to determine how to vote. When enough people are using the system, all the information they need is easily accessed, all in one place. They never feel completely uniformed about any ballot choice. It is then a small step to actually casting a vote, which means we progress toward a truly representative elections.
  5. Representative Democracy is enabled.
    When everyone feels confident enough to vote, everyone votes! That makes the outcome a true reflection of what people actually want, rather than a reflection of who was motivated enough to overcome “voter inertia” to get to the polls.
  6. Civil politics ensue.
    When elections depend on partisan voter turnout, there is great incentive to engage in fear-mongering. And the object of that fear, naturally, is the opposition candidate. To the degree that fear is increased, it suppresses opposition turnout. At the same time, fear galvanizes the party base. To put it bluntly, fear works. But that observation is true only so long as voter turnout is an issue. Once it becomes a non-issue, it will rapidly be determined that calm, positive messages (and, hopefully, centrist politics) have the widest appeal.
  7. Money no longer determines the outcome of elections.
    By making advertising effectively irrelevant, massive campaign contributions (in time) become effectively irrelevant, as well. As a result, money would no longer be the determining factor in electoral outcomes. And that is the most significant problem to solve in today’s America.

Call to Action

If a Voting Advice System sounds good to you, then please sign the Declaration of Support for the idea. It is the best tool we have at the moment to show interest, recruit developers, and secure philanthropic investment. And by all means, volunteer to pursue those activities! (Or engage in social media outreach, which is also needed.)

On the other hand, if you need to know more, see the Voting Advice FAQ.

Copyright © 2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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