Technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives. We can summon a car with the push of a button, have a conversation with our smartphone, and track how many steps we take or calories we burn. Yet there’s one area that technology has had difficulty fully disrupting: politics.
To be sure, we have definitely made strides in this area (President Obama’s campaign social media use, the FCC’s online comment board, Twitter Q&As with politicians) but there is still further to go. As Ben Rattray, CEO of Change.org and anchor for the Reinvent Tech in Politics roundtable said, “we have not fully realized the potential for technology in democracy.” In particular, he pointed to three areas where he sees the most opportunity for change: campaigns, governance, and mobilization.
One of the biggest problems we see in American politics is the disinterest and disengagement of the public. As Ann Ravel, Vice Chair of the Federal Election Commission put it, “A lot of people have opted out of politics.” There are many causes of this: a belief by the individual that their voice doesn’t matter or will not be heard, increasing influence by wealthy donors, obstacles to voting, and a lack of information. As we learned in this roundtable, technology can help solve many of these problems and allow people to reinvest in the issues.
With respect to campaigns, we are beginning to see the problems that money in politics is creating. The wealthy are gaining unprecedented access to and influence on politicians, drowning out the voices of those who are unable to give large amounts. The Internet, however, has the potential to transform this through methods such as crowdfunding. This allows for a dramatic increase in the number of small donors, strengthening their voices and making single large donors less relevant. Technology also reminds us that it’s not really money that is important. As Ben pointed out, “politicians only care about money insofar as it secures votes.”
Technology has also expanded access to information and as Josh Ginsberg, CEO of Zignal Labs, put it, provided a “much louder microphone for the individual.” The internet has empowered individuals by giving them knowledge and a platform to ask questions, collaborate, and discuss issues. He points out that, in past elections, the best get-out-the-vote operations have focused on peer-to-peer contact. For example, a neighbor reminding you to vote was far more effective than a television ad for a particular candidate. Technology allows you to take this peer-to-peer interaction to a new level; it’s no longer just knocking on doors but connecting you with neighbors via smartphones or social media. Another barrier to mobilization is the fact that voting isn’t easy. Polling places aren’t always convenient and it’s sometimes difficult to take time out of your day to get to the polls. To add to this, it’s often the case that once you get there you have to wait in long lines just to cast your vote on confusing ballots. Greg Miller, Chief Development Officer at OSET Foundation TrustTheVote Project, suggested that technology be used to make this experience better. For example, he pointed to an app that would tell people when is best to go to their polling place or how long the line might be. It’s this type of information that could really change how people perceive elections and politics. Tools like this could bring back the large numbers of people who we are currently seeing opt out of the political process.
When it comes to governance and legislation, it’s all about the public’s voice being heard. The group strongly believes that in the near future we will be begin to see independent, insurgent candidates rise up and, as Ren Rattray eloquently put it, “commit to voting for legislation in accordance with the online votes of their constituents.” In this way, technology will connect elected officials directly to the voices of their constituents and hold them accountable for their actions.
As political strategist Joe Trippi explained, there are still challenges to infusing technology into the political process. For example, current management and consulting classes do not yet have experience using technology effectively in elections and are essentially waiting for the younger class to come through and change the way things are done. Our discussion showed that implementing technology in the right ways can make a difference in solving these problems. And as Jim Greer, Founder of CounterPAC and T4A.org Board Member pointed out, tech wants to help. So let’s utilize this group and begin to make changes in these three key areas and more.
Check out all the videos from this episode here: