by Matt S*nger and Scott D*ncombe, the B*s Federation
Hey there, smarty pants. Let’s face it, if you’re reading a democracy-themed Tumblr, you’re probably a pretty huge geek, just like us. You’re the sort of person who gets your ballot and probably feels all super smart as you start moving through the questions at the top. Then, half-way through, you’re asked to make a selection for Clerk of District Court and you’re all like
We agree. It ain’t reasonable. We love democracy, but sometimes there’s just so much of it. Social scientists talk about “decision fatigue,” which is why we get tired when making a series of decisions. And a series of decisions it is. A Montanan wandering into the voting booth this November will have 24 candidate races and ballot measures to evaluate with 50 options to choose from. How many? Too many.
And some of these choices are hard. Here’s the actual Alabama Amendment 10 voters are asked to consider this fall:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, effective January 1, 2014, to amend Section 247 relating to the authority of the Legislature concerning banks and banking, to repeal various other provisions of Article XIII concerning banks and banking; and to repeal Amendment 154 to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, now appearing as Section 255.01 of the Official Recompilation of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, as amended, subject to the contingency that a new Article XII of the state constitution is adopted that repeals existing Section 232 of the state constitution, and subject to the contingency that Sections 10A-2-15.01 and 10A-2-15.02, Code of Alabama 1975, are repealed. (Proposed by Act 2012-276)”
Combine this overwhelming and confusing stuff with the message of John Stossel (and those of us who would mock him) that only the well-informed should vote and is it any surprise what we get? Lower turnout rates and people who only vote part of their ballot.
And the folks who do vote are more likely to use simple things like political party affiliation as a heuristic (that’s just a fancy term meaning “thing that makes thinking less necessary”). In other words, highly opinionated partisans like John Stossel push away more independently minded folks by calling them stupid.
But what are folks supposed to do? There are some tools out there to help folks find candidates they support. Often, though, these tools focus simply on the Presidential race and other stuff at the top of the ballot, where there’s already a huge amount of public information. Many of these tools also operate through a short policy quiz, before matching someone to candidates with whom they agree on 5-15 major issues. But this just reduces voters to “rational fools,” removing human agency while discounting the role of character, managerial experience, connections to community, and other factors (the oft cited get-a-beer-with-y-ness) voters might want to include.
Here’s our basic idea: we can crowdsource democracy. Let anyone in the country create a voter guide and promote it through Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Pinterest. Then we’ll compile these thoughts into user-friendly formats so anyone can see what their friends and neighbors think about the stuff they’ll be voting on.
It turns out that this is easier said than done. There are more than 3,000 counties in the US, all with their own voting rules (some are called parishes, some called townships). There are over 7,000 state legislators. And many different states have their own ways of organizing ballot measures (or, as they’re called, referenda, amendments, or propositions). Organizing all this information and making it approachable is a huge undertaking.
We’re also not doing that alone. By supporting the good work of the Voting Information Project, we’re helping to develop a data set that can be used to power TheBallot.org and other voter education tools across the country. In other words, even if our tool doesn’t work, we just might help someone else invent the thing that will work.
Because for the team behind TheBallot.org, this isn’t about getting rich or famous (although we wouldn’t complain). It’s about making democracy work better. Or at least making it just a little f*cking easier.
Matt Singer and Scott Duncombe are executive director and technology director, respectively, of the Bus Federation. They helped build TheBallot.org, in addition to doing other various things for democracy this year.
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