How PopVox Helps People Scream Less, Think Smarter About Politics

PopVox is getting better and better at taking America’s (too-often racing) political pulse. But its ultimate goal, says founder Marci Harris, is to lower the volume of partisan shouting enough to help average people make sense of the issues.

Polls say that a little more than half of Americans oppose a military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But on PopVox, the democracy-tech platform founded by Marci Harris (one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People), the numbers tell a different story. “On PopVox we saw a pretty steady 96% of people weighing in were opposed,” says Harris of recent activity on her site.

Why the discrepancy? First, a quick refresher on what PopVox is, and how it works. Any bill introduced in Congress gets its own page on PopVox; organizations and people can then log on to the site to express support or opposition to specific pieces of legislation. PopVox verifies addresses, so legislators can be sure the messages they receive actually represent their constituencies. And PopVox integrates directly where possible with communications systems within Congress (such as the House Democrats’ Intranet, DemCom; House Republicans and the Senate lack comparable systems).

So while PopVox’s major goal is to streamline information flow through the political process, and therefore to bring about a more authentic and direct democracy, PopVox inevitably deals with an already engaged sample of the American population. A randomized poll would reach out to a host of people who simply haven’t made up their minds on intervention on Syria--people who are frankly glad to have someone else make this decision for them. Meanwhile, PopVox will attract a population of people who have made up their minds and are vocal about it.

In this, though, PopVox simply mirrors how the political process often already works. It’s no coincidence that lobbyists--broadly construed as organizations supporting or opposing particular legislation--are some of the biggest fans of the site. Whereas the average concerned citizen might send in an abstract complaint to a representative (“Save the Whales!”), lobbying groups tend to have a more sophisticated sense of how legislation actually works, mobilizing its members to support or oppose specific bills. Even the most basic data can be tricky for average citizens to access, let alone make sense of: PopVox is designed to hack what might be called the “user experience” problems of politics--opaque processes, complex websites, stymied data flow.

While PopVox still attracts a politically savvy or opinionated population, Harris tells Fast Company that its ultimate goal is to become a tool for something closer to direct democracy. Not only would the passionate or partisan have a voice, but voices of moderation would also grow in strength. Harris says she would love for the site to someday offer people the opportunity to “show their opinions in a much more mundane, cooler, daily way, as opposed to only when they’re passionate or fired up.” Our political discourse is often dominated by a kind of trench warfare between opposing extremes--in part, that’s because only the “fired up” bother to mobilize. “It’s rare for an organization or constituency to advocate for compromise,” says Harris, herself the product of a bipartisan home (her father is a Republican mayor of a Tennessee county; her mother’s a Democratic activist. They’re divorced).

Jake Brewer in the Huffington Post has called our current state "the tragedy of political advocacy"--the fact that "this increased share-your-voice-i-ness of citizens with Congress has actually resulted in more reliance on specialists and less on constituents than ever before." (As a PopVox affiliate, though, Brewer reserves praise for Harris's efforts.)

So what will it take to get us to the promised land of a more civil and participatory democracy, and how exactly will technology chart our course through the desert? Harris says she doesn't know for sure just yet; she can only spot trends and share hopes. Ultimately, she admits, some factors are beyond control of even the most ambitious entrepreneur.

An honest assessment of the sheer volume of data and information that swirls around Congress may demand a simple acknowledgment that not everyone can be an expert on everything. "Congress is hard. Legislation is hard. It's tough for people to understand," Harris admits. "It's tough for professionals to understand. It's tough for people who have lives to really dig in." An ongoing commitment to civics education is key, she says (and PopVox could surely be a tool in such lessons). Ever increasing access to the proceedings of government is helpful, too. "In many countries, hearings are streamed, votes are published, and the procedural details of budget wrangling are covered on cable news," she says.

The question remains, though: Even if the voices of moderation had access to all that information, would they ever have time to digest it all and to become, so to speak, "passionate" about their moderation? Harris says that the wider accessibility of politically relevant information "doesn't mean that people will--or should--weigh in on every issue, but it does mean that they will have a chance to decide which issues merit their attention without the conventional filters. If we in the civic tech community can make it easy enough for people to find what interests or affects them, share their opinions, and share with networks, then there is the potential for civic engagement that doesn't rely on the motivators of anger, hyperbole, and fear to drive it."

For Harris, whose platform grows every day, it's more than an article of faith. "We the People are growing up," she says.

[Image: Flickr user U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan J. Mayes | Released]

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