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Tracking the Pulse of Elections in 2014 and Beyond

BY Dan Ancona | Thursday, October 23 2014

Voting Booths 1966 (Clackamas County Historical Society/flickr)

If you have a smartphone, or if you are familiar with them, think about this: apps are absolutely amazing, aren't they? Take At Bat for example, the app for following Major League Baseball. If you're a subscriber, you can get audio feeds of any baseball game in the country, and pick either team's announcers. It has this wild near-augmented reality feature that renders pitches in 3D from the batter's point of view! Music is another example. There are services like Spotify, the ultimate infinite jukebox that you can hop into and listen to practically every song ever recorded by humanity, from yodeling to techno. I have a satellite weather app that brings in images from satellites and, in real time, somehow, draws them over a map so I can see how crappy traffic is going to be and whether my kid needs to wear his shiny red firefighter raincoat.

And yet, if you like following politics, even during campaign season, you've got this: roughly bupkis. Our phone screens are a living illustration of John Kenneth Galbraith's observation about private affluence and public squalor.

Making an app that makes democracy less complicated and more user friendly is a dragon many have tried to slay. I know, because I was one of the knights that got fried in the course of trying to do so. From 2010 to 2012 I was building a startup called Democracy Dashboard. We created a tool that lots of folks loved and still ask for like clockwork right around every election when the tidal wave of election recommendations on social media starts. We couldn't get it to grow fast or cheap enough to build a sustainable business out of it, though. And there've been countless others: voter.com, Votizen, and ElectNext just to name a few.

A few folks are still trying to build businesses around this goal. Countable has a lot of bills and some lovely interaction design. iCitizen isn't half bad as a news platform. The team that built Votizen is trying again with Brigade. The news orgs like Politico probably have apps that mostly appeal to real insiders. PollVault is excellent and helpful for voting. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of super advanced tools paid for campaigns.

But what if you're an ordinary voter with maybe slight activist leanings who just wants to promote a candidate or two? Or even just someone who wants to know what's happening and have some ideas who is running on what's on the ballot in a couple weeks? Or if you're looking at all those yards signs and thinking - great, but why are people supporting these candidates?

For you, there has been nothing, but a new open-source movement called We Vote has built a Twitter voting guide that is an initial attempt to answer this challenge. We Vote’s mission is to empower citizens to make voting decisions based on the thinking of the best and brightest minds in your personal network and the organizations you trust. For this election cycle We Vote Labs has launched an experimental mobile website called Pulse, which you can try at http://pulse.wevote.info/. The purpose of Pulse is to save tweets about candidates and propositions and build a quick, mobile friendly voter guide that you can take with you into the voting booth and share with friends.

WeVote's mobile voter guide.

There are three reasons we think Pulse is worth trying:

1) It's simple: We've boiled the interaction down to the simplest atomic element of political participation: support or oppose a candidate or proposition, and from a platform 271 million people already use monthly. Optionally, you can include an issue hashtag, a comment and a link.

2) It's mobile: The entire focus is building a vibrant and social voter guide that works on your phone, so you and your friends and allies can easily take it along when you go to vote.

3) It enables you to kick ass, faster: If you started in July and knocked on doors and made phone calls every day, by Election Day you might be able to rack up a few hundred contacts. If you build a voter guide with We Vote and share it, you could rack up the same number of contacts in a couple of days before Election Day. We're not saying don't make calls or knock on doors: our favorite campaigns are built from exactly this kind of model and we're no strangers to it. But use Pulse, too. The We Vote team is finding it useful so far for keeping track of the best arguments for and against candidates and propositions, and for keeping them from going over the social media waterfall.

Pulse was built very quickly (over a couple of days) in order to show how we can better share our perspectives and prepare to vote. To use it, you need to be on Twitter and need to tweet as the first word “supporting” or “opposing,” the candidate’s twitter handle and the #WeVote tag. You can also add a helpful link to back up your position, and a personal comment, in quotes. For this election cycle we are targeting early adopters and online political activists.

We hope you'll give it a try and get involved with the We Vote movement for the long haul. Here's why:

1) We are laser focused on making voting easier. The dropoff from 2008 to 2010 was 42 million voters, nearly a third of the 2008 electorate. There's lot of reasons why, but for sure one reason is the increasing, daunting complexity of figuring out what decisions to make at the ballot box. Even well-informed activists often have a hard time tracking local issues and especially candidates, since most issue-based organizations can’t even take a position on candidates. By building networks of trust and arming them with beautifully designed and easy-to-use tools, we are convinced we can solve this problem and cut through the complexity.

2) Along the way, we are going to smash the role of money in politics. Enormous effort and money is being spent on limiting the flow of money into campaigns. We're looking at the other side of the balance sheet: where that money gets spent. TV and online ads and direct mail are incredibly expensive. Imagine replacing that with an open source, friendly, social channel connecting voters, communities, and leaders.

3) The future. Think ahead ten years, or thirty years. Or fifty. We are not going to be asking voters to make decisions using ads and pieces of mail. What would things be like if there was a factor of ten or more increase in the number of well-informed voters? Where campaigns could focus on real problem solving, and how to best communicate their ideas and solutions, rather than raising money to buy a channel to voters?

Following U.S. democracy can and should be every bit as exciting and easy to follow and get engaged in as baseball. More so, even, since the stakes are so much higher. There are lots of barriers to this happening, but one of them is clearly the outmoded technical infrastructure we have for grappling with it. Come sign up at http://wevote.info/ or http://github.com/WeVote and build the next great experiment in American democracy with us.

Dan Ancona has been building online tools for empowering people in democracies since 2002, and is the chief evangelist for We Vote.