Sunday, May 20, 2012

You Might Even Have Fun

The Washington Post has this column discussing nine ideas for "fixing" our political problems. First among the ideas they say Won't Work is this persistent notion that a Third Party candidate will come along and topple the equally corrupt and repellent Republican/Democrat paradigm.  As they say, ‎"The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support..." a slate of populist, moderate issues.

If it isn't clear from my earlier writings, I've been hopeful about that happening myself.  But I agree that this non-existent Third Party won't be able to do this from the top down.  Even if a group could rally behind a candidate, that person would have no political support structure in office.  Who would they nominate for the hundreds of Cabinet and judicial positions? Who would a Third Party candidate have in Congress to propose and manage their legislative goals?

The Post also points out how the experiment of Americans Elect to use the internet as a tool to rally around these erstwhile Third Party aspirants has largely failed.  Personally, I think they should have spent their money on a secure website that lets members build a profile of their various beliefs/opinions/expertise, and then "matches" them to local candidates. Something like a "dating" site for voters to find compatible candidates.

There are some sites like this out there already - you can play with sites like Select Smart 2012,
 Glassbooth.organd even the USA Today Match game,  just to name a couple - but they tend to use slanted test questions that lump people into broad categories or offer a superficial percentage of "how similar" they are to the mainstream candidates. I'm talking about a more academically rigorous set of questions designed to get past the labels people adopt and find out what their "ideal candidate" would look like - then compare that "ideal" to the profiles of available candidates. 

Of the sites that exist, Glassbooth starts out close to what I would envision as the "getting started" phase; when you set up your profile on Tad's Educated Voter site, you would get a slate of a dozen or so issues that you can rate on a scale from "Care deeply" to "Deep apathy" - and mark whether you are eligible or willing to run for public office. Then over time, the app would notify members of new questions or issues, send out "straw polls," and basically ask things intended to refine everyone's profile and draw out something deeper than "do you support/oppose gay marriage" or "support/oppose Big Government" - loaded questions with a lot of hidden nuance.

The trick would be to get actual candidates to build a profile, too, so they could be compared in a more realistic way to potential constituents.  This would be easier to do at local levels, in my opinion.  Or, even better, if you want to really harness the 'Net and enable true democracy, this site should match members up with any office for which they are eligible to run.  If they are interested, they can identify themselves on the site as Candidates, and let their profile get matched to those of potential voters - so everyone involved could see a deeper, more accurate comparison with a real candidate AND that candidate could gauge the likely level of support they could get before throwing in their hat.

That part of the site - the collecting of information about people's opinions - has a lot of possibilities, both for use and abuse. Protecting User privacy and avoiding even the faintest whiff of sponsorship-corruption would be crucial.  But if you can build that trust, and give people reliable guidance, I think that would be of enough value to people that they would sign up - at least for the initial curiosity factor.

But my point is that we've already seen viral quiz-taking, political activity apps, and a wide variety of social networking sites that nobody thought would survive take off in the last several years.  If this "Candidate Match-making" site were built, I have no doubt it could be turned into something truly useful for both voter education and for improving voter participation in state & local politics.  To me, the possibility of being able to see what a candidate really thinks before I vote for her would be worth the effort of putting together my own profile. Once there is a large enough community base, I'm sure the idea that any potential candidate could reach out to an anonymous, but still vetted, group of potential voters and ask them to share the link to their campaign materials FOR FREE would be worth the effort of putting together their profile.

Now, to go back to that Post article, think about the other things on their list of ideas that will/won't work that would be fixed by a system like the one I just described.  If the site itself is non-partisan and non-profit, wouldn't that address some of the campaign finance and voter participation issues?  If voters are engaged, AND inspired to run, wouldn't that competition address the Term Limits issue?  And who knows... a lot of people who are bored by our current system might actually enjoy this.

I know a lot of people in web design, and a lot of people who have studied political sciences and sociology - I have no doubt they could join forces (even if they disagree on party politics) and come up with the right mix of questions, the right user interface, and the right API to tie into Facebook and Twitter.  I offer myself as a User/Guinea Pig if you launch one of these sites.

Who knows... it might actually help.  And you might even have fun doing it.

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