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Thursday, 18 October 2018 07:49

Technologies Can Be Key in Helping to Reform Democracy

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I Voted Sticker Dwight Burdette / WikiCommons

During the last few years, an explosion of new political technology projects has sought to help candidate campaigns. From micro-targeting and advanced analytics, to new strategies for canvassing and fundraising, technology is now “disrupting” politics – for better and for worse. For those of us seeking to reform our broken democracy, some of these new political technologies can be a powerful force for good, if used in the service of reform campaigns.

Campaigns focused on changes like reforming the role of money in politics, ending gerrymandering, and automatic voter registration can benefit from tapping into several key campaign tools now commonly available.  

Democracy reform campaigns tend to share some common characteristics. First, they require a greater than average amount of explanation to voters. For example, redistricting reformranked choice voting and public funding of election campaigns all take more than a sound bite to explain.

Second, these reforms tend to have broad support once people understand them. When voters unfamiliar with these reforms are exposed to both pro and con arguments, support for reform increases.

Third, a little information from a credible source goes a long way on these issues. For many voters, democracy reform ideas are brand new. While a half-dozen slate mailers may be disregarded, one email from a friend can be enough to tip an undecided voter.

Based on these commonalities, there are three types of technologies that are especially suited to promoting democracy reform – all of which have new tools and services that democracy campaigns can benefit from.

Technologies to Improve Voter Education

Because lack of voter knowledge and understanding are key barriers to passage for many democracy reform campaigns, tools and services that clearly explain ballot measures to voters are especially helpful to reform measures. Notably, because support for reform generally increases even after a voter has heard both pro and con arguments, this doesn’t just come down to messaging and framing. Instead, nonpartisan voter education represents an asymmetric tool that can’t be used effectively by reform opponents. While advocates for democracy reform benefit from voters having a balanced and complete understanding of a reform proposal, anti-reform efforts suffer. 

One example of this type of tool is Voter’s Edge California, a service of MapLight and the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. Voter’s Edge is a nonpartisan voting guide that includes comprehensive information about candidates and ballot measures. A California voter can type in their address and find out everything on their ballot down to the local level, with meaningful information about each candidate and ballot measure – like plain-language explanations of ballot measures, top campaign donors and lists of endorsements. Voter’s Edge has no political agenda besides making voters more knowledgeable, more informed and better able to make decisions in their own best interests. Other examples of nonpartisan voting guides include Vote411 and the election guide explainers published by local media outlets.

The more nonpartisan voting guides like this reach voters, the better it is for reform campaigns. 

Technologies to Facilitate Peer-to-Peer Communication

When a voter is deciding whether to support a democracy reform measure, endorsements from friends and family are among the most potent forms of persuasion out there. 

Campaign ads, slate mailers and other forms of advertising pile up on both sides of races during election season, but direct person-to-person communications can break through the noise and help to swing their vote – a key reason that candidate campaigns invest in “ground games” involving volunteer door-knocking and phone calls. An endorsement from someone the voter already personally knows and trusts is the gold standard for this kind of personal contact.

Yet this type of campaigning can be expensive, time-consuming and inefficient. For example, during a three-hour volunteer shift knocking on doors for a local political reform campaign, I knocked on 70 doors, but only six people were home and available to talk. This low yield can be demotivating for volunteers, who may do one shift and never come back.

VoterCircle is one of several startups making volunteers more effective through peer-to-peer outreach. VoterCircle has a straightforward and effective approach: It matches people who you’ve corresponded with in the past with registered voters in your district. 

With this information at your fingertips, in an hour or less you can email hundreds of friends and acquaintances in support of your democracy reform campaign – making volunteer time radically more effective and motivating. Initial evidence from VoterCircle finds that this peer-to-peer contact also increases voter turnout substantially in down-ballot races.

Startup apps and services like Team and Relay are among the other firms providing peer-to-peer communications, via social media and texting. 

Technologies That Reduce the Cost of Communicating With Voters

New technology to reach registered voters continues to advance – making it possible for campaigns to reach likely voters and ensure fewer “wasted impressions” on a tight budget.  

For example, the successful 2016 campaign for public funding of elections in Berkeley, California, paid for Facebook and Instagram ads of videos of supporters saying why they supported the reform ballot measure. These videos were shown only to Facebook and Instagram users who were registered to vote in Berkeley, ensuring that the campaign was not wasting money on non-voters. The campaign also used a service that targeted Berkeley voters on the web at large, so that even while looking at a national website, a Berkeley voter would be shown an ad for the local democracy reform measure.

All of these evolving digital tools serve not only to educate voters, but also to improve the efficiency of reform campaigns. For those of us working to build a stronger democracy from the bottom up, maximizing new technology will be vital to our success.


Daniel G. Newman is the president of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money's influence on politics and promotes political reform.