David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Dave’s Grand Ideas: Amazon for Voters

What’s the biggest problem with our system of democracy? John McCain and Russell Feingold seem to think that it’s lax campaign finance rules that allow moneyed interests to funnel cash into campaigns. Others think it’s media bias or homogeneity of opinion between the two parties.

I happen to think the main problem is too much information.

The general public is often only aware of the hottest of hot-button issues — gay marriage, flag burning, the war in Iraq. And while sometimes our own personal stance on a particular issue is strong enough to tilt us in favor of one candidate or the other, it’s often a more nebulous decision-making process than that. There are a million issues that deserve our attention and a legislative trail a thousand miles long. So, overwhelmed by all this data, we end up voting for our national representatives strictly on the party line. Or, even worse, we vote on the basis of our feelings about a particular candidate — and as we all know, our feelings are easily manipulated by the mass medium of television.

And that’s just on a national level. What about all of those tens of thousands of candidates for local and regional office? Most of us know that we can tune in to the local newspaper on the last few days before the election and get a nice, concise summary of the candidates’ views. But we don’t necessarily trust these concise summaries. And so we end up staying home from local elections simply because we don’t know anything about these races.

One might think that you could conduct adequate research about political candidates via the Internet. But have you ever tried to wade through a politician’s website? They’re invariably stuffed to the gills with self-promotional blather and doublespeak. Like the television commercials, they’re generally designed not to disseminate information, but to give the prospective voter a warm and fuzzy feeling about the candidate.

So here’s a Grand Idea: what if someone built an independent voter information aggregator? Let’s call it Amazon for Voters. (You’ll see why I invoke the name of Amazon shortly.)

Here’s how it would work.

You, the voter, access the Amazon for Voters website and fill out a short questionnaire. Which issues are the most important to you? Choose from a set of drop-down menus a list of the top ten issues that you care about. Let’s say you choose gun control, abortion, and welfare reform. Amazon for Voters asks you where you stand on each particular issue. Pro-gun or pro-gun control? Pro-life or pro-choice? More money for welfare programs, or slash the heck out of those welfare budgets?

Click “Submit,” and the system instantly tabulates a list of the candidates for whom you’re eligible to vote that match your viewpoint. You get a numerical score: “Rep. John Doe is an 83% match on your views.”

How is this score calculated? Through legislative scorecards from independent organizations like the League of Women Voters, the National Rifle Association, NARAL, etc. Through a statistical analysis of that person’s actual voting history. Through endorsements by this or that organization.

Or better yet, through the candidates’ own self-rankings. Candidates (or rather, their staffs) fill out voter questionnaires like this all the time, but I’ve never heard of anyone compiling all of them into a comprehensive statistical database. (Or if someone has, they haven’t bothered to put it in a nice, user-friendly package for the masses and publicize it.)

There are certainly a number of issues in which most candidates are going to rank themselves squarely in the mushy middle — “I feel like government can’t afford to pay for our senior citizens’ prescription drugs, but I also feel like we can’t leave our elderly population out in the cold” — but there are also a number of issues where candidates are happy to make their positions widely known. How many politicians try to hide their position on abortion, for instance?

The best part about Amazon for Voters is that it’s completely nonpartisan. The system doesn’t place any judgment on the politicians’ views, or your views for that matter; it simply provides a numerical index for how closely your views match with each candidate’s views. It will work equally well for anyone from the hard left to the hard right.

Now here’s where things start getting fun.

Let’s say you’re passionate about a particular issue: the flag burning amendment, for instance. You’re willing to devote some time and money to the cause of passing/defeating this wonderful/horrible amendment, but you don’t know where to start. Log on to Amazon for Voters, click on the flag burning amendment link, and you can find where your local politicians stand on the issue. Furthermore, since the site cross-references both the candidates’ fundraising numbers and the latest polls, you can see which candidates most need your time and/or money. You can tell, for instance, that Candidate A (who supports your view) is in a tight race with Candidate B (who opposes your view) and has a much smaller campaign warchest.

Or suppose you’re already planning to vote for Hillary Clinton in the national Democratic primary for president and Barbara Mikulski for senator, but you’re conflicted on the Maryland governor’s race. (An unlikely scenario, but work with me here, people.) Amazon for Voters will inform you that Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley has a 74% agreement with Clinton’s and Mikulski’s views, while Republican candidate Robert Ehrlich only has a 41% agreement.

Basically the point is this: let’s take the amorphous, meaningless blather about “trust” and “character” out of the political dialogue and replace it with cold, hard, computer-tabulated facts. The end result? A more informed electorate, and one that is less susceptible to media manipulation. Such is my theory, anyway.

By this point, you’re probably thinking that this system is ripe for exploitation and abuse. Of course it is. There are a lot of potential pitfalls here, and lots of campaign laws and regulations to steer around (of which I’m largely ignorant). But you can minimize these troubles with a few simple guiding principles:

  • Transparency. The whole works should be done via open-source software. Any editorial input should be clearly labeled as such. Calculations should be clearly documented.
  • Neutrality. If you can’t find a nonpartisan source of information for something, then at least make sure the right and left are equally represented.
  • Independence. Accept no funding from any partisan group (or, again, insist on equal funding from groups from all sides of the political spectrum).
  • Anonymity. For the users, at least. Your IP address is not logged, your e-mail address is not collected, your credit card and social security number are nowhere to be found.

You might also wonder: even if this works, is this system necessarily a good thing? What if the system did become successful? Do we want voters deciding the outcome of an election based on some computer-generated recommendation?

I say yes.

Why? Because Amazon for Voters wouldn’t just spit out politicians’ names out of context and expect you to take them as gospel. You’d get a detailed explanation to justify the system’s recommendation, complete with links to the requisite source material. You’d get handy links to both your candidate’s website and his opponent’s, along with links to endorsements, scorecards, independent opinions, partisan opinions and more. You’d get to read comments from registered users who have voted for this or that candidate, and maybe statements from the candidates themselves.

Will there be people who would just log in the day of an election and pull up a list of candidate recommendations without doing any of the background research? Sure. But how much worse is that than the voter who trucks down to the polling place and just apes the party’s sample ballot without even being aware what they’re voting for?

Let’s think of the Amazon comparison. Before Amazon came along, how much research did we put into the books that you bought? Perhaps we read a single critic’s opinion in the New York Times Book Review. Perhaps we saw a single ad or were persuaded by the author blurb on the cover. But now? Now we can read dozens of independent reviews. We can see real readers giving their opinions in real time, and we can see actual statistics that show definitively that, yes, people who buy Neal Stephenson’s books tend to buy William Gibson’s too.

I know that I, for one, am certainly a smarter consumer than I used to be because of Amazon. I would jump at the chance to be a smarter and more diligent citizen, too.

Probably the biggest potential problem with a system like this would be the funding. You need someone to host the database and someone to design the comparison algorithms. You need political consultants who can give weight to all the varied sources of information out there. Most importantly, you need people to input all these hundreds of thousands of informational nuggets into the system, and you need them to do it on a timely fashion. All this costs money — and remember, as per above, this won’t work if it’s funded by the DNC or the RNC.

But let’s suppose that some nonprofit decided to fund a project like this. Let’s suppose it’s given a couple of years to incubate and mature.

This could work. Why not?

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Soni on July 13, 2006 at 11:29 pm  Chain link

    Me want. Of course, something of the germ of this idea is staring to build over at Campaign Wikia (http://campaigns.wikia.com/wiki/Campaigns_Wikia). But really, I like your version muy better. In fact, I’ve had a similar vision since long before the Internets came along and showed me how it could work. But your version is far better fleshed out.

  2. tommyspoon on July 17, 2006 at 11:11 am  Chain link

    Um, before we implement your shiny “Amazon for Voters” thingie, allow me to make several suggestions for improving our current system:

    1. Paper ballots (or receipts for electronic voting).

    2. Multi-day voting.

    3. Counting every vote.

    I really want to see #2 and #3 implemented before we resort to an all-electronic method.

  3. David Louis Edelman on July 17, 2006 at 11:24 am  Chain link

    Definitely agree with your points there, Tom. The more I read about those Diebold voting machines, the more frightened I become.

    I do want to point out that the little system I outline above doesn’t actually say anything about electronic voting, it just helps you figure out who to push the button for. Once you get the list of candidates that match your line of thinking, the actual getting-your-ass-out-to-vote part is up to you.

    I think it would be a big mistake to follow Amazon’s model all the way by putting a “one-click voting” link at the end of the recommendation. There really needs to be a disconnect between a system like this and the actual voting process.

  4. tommyspoon on July 17, 2006 at 12:06 pm  Chain link

    You know, the simplest thing to do is just vote via absentee ballot. Solves all my problems, doesn’t it?

    But I like your system of matching candidates via your issues.

  5. Thom Stanley on September 27, 2006 at 3:48 pm  Chain link

    Just reading some old stuff. Unfortunately, this is brilliant. And scary, as most brilliant things are.

  6. Maura on January 4, 2007 at 7:04 am  Chain link

    Great post. There was such a Web site back in 2003, as I recall, related to the Democratic presidential primaries. I’ll see if I can dig it up in archives somewhere. As I recall, the user took a lengthy questionnaire on issues, not only specifying their position on particular issues, but also ranking the relative importance of an issue to the user.

    As I recall, I visited this site around February or early March of 2003 and it cranked out a result saying Dennis Kucinich scored around 93 out of 100 for me (since I’m even more to the left of him on many issues but far more pragmatic than him on tactics) but this nobody I’d never heard of called Howard Dean also happened to score very high. In fact, this Dean nobody guy was almost perfectly in line with everything I cared about on the survey except for gun control (he had an A NRA rating) but since I had ranked gun control fairly low, he still stayed up high.

    That site caused me to take the first serious look at Dean long before anyone in the national media was giving him any attention. All I had to do after that was actually read Dean’s words on the Iraq War — having the balls to say the things no one else in the Democratic Party was willing to say — and I was hooked. Very soon after that was the MoveOn.org primary, and the rest, as they say, was history.

    A couple of supposedly non-partisan groups do already run some clearinghouse sites that aggregate data on congressional voting records compared with issue-advocacy scorecards (NRA, NARAL, etc.)

    The real downside to using advocacy group scorecards, however, is the group’s selective choice of which particular votes to include on the scorecard. For instance, NARAL is supposed to be the most important abortion rights advocacy group, right? And votes related to appointments to the Supreme Court are arguably one of the most, if not THE most, important votes regarding abortion rights, right? Well, when Alito was up for a vote, it was very clear to anyone who actually followed that confirmation that the only way battle there was the battle over a filibuster. If you voted for cloture on debate (and against filibuster), you basically were voting for Alito. After cloture, you could vote against Alito, but that didn’t really matter, because the only way to stop his appointment was through filibuster. But NARAL’s scorecard doesn’t count the cloture vote at ALL!!!!!

    All this is really esoteric shit…and when it comes down to it, the average voter may absolutely support important things like habeus corpus or reproductive freedom, but not know that Alito threatened those and certainly wouldn’t know jack about how filbusters work…and wouldn’t know cloture from a hole in the wall.

    And when I think about all this, I don’t accept the notion that we just throw up our hands and say, well, Americans are far too busy and far too overwhelmed with information to be expected to know what cloture is and why voting for cloture means we shouldn’t support Barack Obama for President in ’08 even though he is pretty cute and makes a damn good feel-good speech. What I love about the growing blogosphere are those bloggers, like you, who aren’t just SF bloggers or infertility bloggers or skateboarding bloggers or political bloggers…someone who is a die-hard SF person might learn about filibustering here. I have friends in their 40’s in the infertility blogging community who learned about what a filibuster is for the first time last year while women were blogging about the Alito vote.

    As Americans, we have a duty to educate ourselves and one another. We can’t just rail against the corporate media or self-promoting politicians. Maybe your Amazon for Voters is one way of doing this, but I think we need to go beyond having some “other”, some separate clearinghouse about elections that people only visit the day before an election. We’ve got to integrate civic awareness into ALL that we do and get more people involved and aware in an integrated way as well.

    /rambling rant

  7. David Louis Edelman on January 4, 2007 at 9:34 am  Chain link

    Not a rambling rant at all, Maura. Thanks for that. I’d be very curious to know what happened to that website and if it’s still around.

    And I’m not sure I’m clear about why voting for cloture means we shouldn’t support Barack Obama for President in ’08…

  8. Calimac on June 30, 2007 at 11:14 am  Chain link

    I’ve seen online polling quizzes that do exactly what you’re proposing here. It’s a good idea.

    But limited.

    First, I’m not sure I know what the ten issues are that concern me most. And what does “concern” mean? The ones that affect me personally? The ones I think are most important in an abstract way? Or the ones that I am most wedded to a particular right answer? I mean, I’m concerned about health care, but I’m much less concerned about the details of a candidate’s plan than I am about whether they’d be able to enact it.

    And that’s the real problem with issues-based voting. Candidates may alter their policies after election, or simply lie about what they believe. (We sure never got the “compassionate conservative,” “walk humbly in foreign policy” Republican who ran in 2000, and that was even before 9/11.) And since a President can’t decree anything, many policy differences are far less important than whether they can drum up support, and have the wisdom and skill to convince people to follow them. Jimmy Carter was right about a lot of things, but he was a failure as President because he couldn’t get enough people to go along with him.

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