Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Engaging a million citizens

December 15th, 2008

Here is an interesting article in the American Prospect that proposes that how Obama administration should try to engage citizens in governance, co-written by my friend Joe Goldman at AmericaSpeaks. The key sentence:

As president, Obama should signal a new kind of governance by calling on the American people to take part in a series of national discussions, each engaging 1 million Americans or more, on the issues of highest public concern, such as the economy, health care, foreign policy, energy, and climate change.”

I know that my advisor Jim Fishkin would criticize AmericaSpeaks recruitment methodology, that allows anyone to participate. He usually argues for random sampling to ensure “formal equality” in the deliberations. But there is definitely something appealing and legitimate about having an open process that offer equal opportunity to participate and make special efforts to recruit people from underserved communities.

I’ll be interested to see if any this talk translates into action!

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You be the judge…

December 2nd, 2008

Al Franken and Norm Coleman are still battling over disputed ballots – nuts! In any event, you can view some disputed ballots and decide for yourself how they should be counted (and use the guidelines provided by the state of MN).

What in the world was this voter thinking?

And this guy/gal?

Spoiler alert: sadly, they don’t have definitive answers on who gets the votes!

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Post-election map

November 6th, 2008

This map is really cool. It uses a color from red to blue to show the relative vote share of republicans and democrats. Most interestingly, it rescales the map so that area is equivalent to population, not land mass. Check out the whole page for other neat ones too.

election map

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Be an informed voter

October 29th, 2008

As I believe most readers of this blog know, I am a trustee of Our big project this year is a national voter guide that we’ve put together with over 100 newspaper and TV partners.

But enough about me. What do you know about the local candidates that you are going to vote for? Get your own personalized voter guide by entering your address into this widget:

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Crowdsourcing Watergate

October 29th, 2008

Today’s NY Times had a sobering article about the demise of old media. I’ve been a proponent of blogging and other citizen initiatives, but I think that the old media has a role that will be missed if newspapers exit stage left: holding powerful people accountable through direct access. Is the SecDef going to respond to bloggers directly? There really is something about the fact that public officials have formal and informal communication with certain reporters, and that these reporters have some independent standing.

As Lance Bennett said at a talk yesterday, “Can you really crowdsource Watergate?”

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How to reform the system

October 1st, 2008

So, my last two posts have argued (1) that we are faced with a deeper crisis than even the media have lead us to believe and (2) that there is a better alternative to the proposed bailout (and both the bailout and my plan are superior to doing nothing). Now, I want to turn to reform. How can we avoid making the same mistakes again in the future?

In a discussion I launched on e-thepeople, someone referred me to the “genesis plan.” In it, the plan proposes changes regulatory changes to limit/end off balance sheet vehicles, to reform credit derivatives and to re-impose limits on leverage for financial institutions. I find the links between the causes and effects to be well-argued, so I think his proposal deserves serious consideration.

As a long-term regulatory reform package, I think it dovetails nicely with my short-term plan to encourage a quick recovery from the current asset bubble we are in.

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My three point plan to solve the current financial crisis

September 29th, 2008

Here is my three point plan to solve the current financial crisis:

  1. Offer tax cuts to people who buy houses in the next six month
  2. Offer tax cuts to financial companies that offer credit in the next six months
  3. Offer temporary immunity from recourse to people who default on their mortgages (or renegotiate it to reflect the current market value of their home)

I have written about my reasoning behind this plan and hope to spark a discussion about it on

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Deliverability, unsolicited email and political communication

June 19th, 2008

Everybody hates spam, which is often defined as “unsolicited email.” I’d argue, however, that spam ought to include the notion “unwanted” in it. If I get an email from an old high school buddy out of the blue, I hardly consider it spam!

I broach this subject because of an e-thePeople I am working on: how to contact campaigns to invite them to participate in election guides. The problem: hotmail and AOL automatically filter our invitations as ‘junk.’

Of course, our emails are technically unsolicited. In most cases, neither we nor the media company has ever communicated prior to the invitation. But unlike regular spam, our emails are arguably wanted, not unwanted. How do we know? Our response rates among campaigns that we do contact ranges from 60-95% depending on the guide.

Now, there are some solutions to help with this ‘deliverability’ problem like ReturnPath. But as its name suggests, this company is trying to make sure that you receive the emails that you’ve requested like newsletters and registration emails.

The other solution is to reach people via opt-in email lists. But there does not exist such an opt-in list for campaigns due to several challenges. First, campaigns are temporary organizations that are created and destroyed rapidly. Second, they are highly fragmented geographically. Third, campaigns are designed to send not receive messages!

But I’d argue that “free speech,” e.g., effective speech, requires that people be able to communicate with their campaigns! Moreover, as I previously argued, these invitations are generally wanted by the campaigns. So what can we do?

In the short-term, I think we can rely on pragmatic solutions. For example, if we send invitations through our affiliates accounts rather than our own, it becomes much more likely that the emails will be delivered. Also, we can target the laggard campaigns that use hotmail and AOL through other channels.

In the longer-term, I hope that we can develop more “democratic” filters. For example, email communication by citizens who can verify that live within a certain district should have higher priority in reaching their elected officials than those citizens that do not live in that district. Perhaps there is someway to differentiate between communication that is commercial in purpose from communication that is political or civic in nature. I know this standard is a little vague, but hopefully it can be developed more as the need for it increases.

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Community news in decline: democracy in peril?

April 15th, 2008

newspaperFor almost 5 decades, newspaper readership has been on the decline. Recently, both newspaper and TV stations have been making substantial cuts to their newsroom staff. The result is less news content being created. This poses a challenge, according to the Knight Commission:

With “the thinning down of newspapers and local television in America, there is measurably less local, civic information available,” said Alberto Ibarguen, president and chief executive of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “So what are the consequences of that?”

(see AP news report)

But news use on the Internet has been growing rapidly for the last ten years, both in terms of overall use and in terms of kinds of uses. And with the grow of blogs, there is a proliferation of alternative content on communities. Still, these trends represent shifts in the types of readers and the types of content available to readers, and it is unclear what the net impact is (pun intended).

For example, is enabling media companies to collect and present more detailed candidate information on more candidates than newspapers or television companies could ever do before. And they can do it with fewer staff and at a lower cost than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of voters are availing themselves to this rich, new source of information.

One insight I draw from this experience is that there is emerging new model for creation of high quality political content. In the case of Voter Guide Toolkit, it is candidate generated content. There may still be a role of media companies in defining races and issues, but information technologies can vastly reduce the cost of creating a comprehensive guide. And citizens will also have an increasingly important role in generating (and perhaps even editing) content, something as demonstrated by, wikipedia and blogs.

I’ve been invited to participate as a member of the “brain trust” by the principal investigator, Peter Shane. In addition to Peter, the Commission is being led by Ted Olson (yes, the Bush appointee and First Amendment expert) and Marissa Mayer (VP of search products and user experience at Google). I am honored to contribute what I can, and I am eager to follow the progress of this important Aspen Institute initiative. I’ll keep you posted!

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Hillary supporters to “Swift Boat” Obama

February 21st, 2008

This report by the Washington Post is disturbing. About 100 contributers have started a 527 PAC called “American Leadership Project” to air attack ads on Obama. At the moment that the Obama campaign has crossed 1 million contributors, 100 ultra-wealthy people are attempting to hijack the primary with $10mm of cynical attack ads.

Here is how the Obama campaign describes the group:

“Here we have a committee that springs up on the eve of an election, promotes a specific candidate, and has no history or apparent purpose of lobbying specific issues outside the benefit to the candidate of these communications,” the memo states. “Its ‘major purpose’ is no mystery.”

And here’s how the spokesperson for the American Leadership Project responds:

“We want to communicate to people where they’re paying the most attention right now. Right now, that’s Ohio and Texas,” he said. “Senator Clinton is a recognized champion of these issues, and we support her positions on health care, the mortgage crisis, the economy, and we say so in the spots. These are positive ads that serve to raise awareness about the issues.”

You can decide which explanation is more plausible for yourself. In my opinion, this proves beyond any doubt that team Clinton (1) is entrenched in money politics and (2) will do anything to get elected. I really hope this backfires.

Here’s a Swift Boat ad to remind you how shameless this tactic really is:

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Comparing the campaigns of Obama and Lessig

February 20th, 2008

Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law Professor, is considering a run for Congress in a special election in my neighboring Silicon Valley district. He has an interesting ten-minute video on his reasons for consider such a run on his new campaign web site, In a nutshell, his campaign platform involves three principles:

1. Accept no lobbyists/PAC money
2. Banning earmarks
3. Support public finance

He asserts that money in politics is the *cause* of the problems with our government, and that without these fundamental systematic changes we are doomed to fail at solving the political issues that most people care about (social security, health care, etc.) He wants to start a bipartisan movement to reform Congress.

His likely opponent for the Democratic nomination is a career politician who is good but trapped in the current system. For example, she has received $250,000 in contributions from insurance companies–and she is the state senator in charge of regulating insurance companies.

Lessig’s message appeals to me. However, I think that he’s going to have to quickly translate his overarching principles into something pragmatic. He’ll get trounced unless he can turn his high ideals into policy solutions to the real political problems we face.

In this way, I think it is instructive to compare Lessig to Obama. In a previous video, Lessig makes a compelling case to support Obama over Clinton for nearly the same reasons that Lessig himself is considering a Congressional run for office. Clinton, like Lessig’s opponent, is a good career politician who is too invested in the corrupt system to make fundamental change.

But now Obama is facing new choices: will he abandon the public financing system? It seems that he likely will, given his amazing fundraising prowess. To wit: he has 900,000 individual contributors and is shooting to reach 1 million by March 4. Should Obama risk losing the Presidency to support our current public financing scheme?

I imagine that Lessig would recommend staying within the public financing guidelines. But aren’t the current guidelines hopelessly out of date? And what about McCain-Finegold campaign legislation – doesn’t that well-intentioned law have more harmful unintended consequences than benefits? I worry that Lessig’s prescription is naive, because the details of the reform matter a lot.

So, to answer my original question: how do lessig and obama differ? I think Lessig is more idealistic than Obama, perhaps to a fault. And Lessig is less detailed about translating his ideals in pragmatic policy solutions than Obama. But Lessig is really smart, and he is running in a Congressional election not a Presidential one.

I am rooting for him. I will applaud him if he has the guts to test whether his high-minded principles can really work in practice. Go Lessig!

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It’s better than voting with ‘invisible ink’

February 8th, 2008

invisible I had a minor voting problem on Super Tuesday in California. Unbeknownst to me, my precinct was turned into a “mail-only” precinct. According to the San Mateo County election department, our precinct was too small (less than 200 people) so we were giving the “opportunity to vote by mail.” I replied, “actually, everyone in California has the opportunity to vote by mail. My precinct is denied the opportunity to vote at a local polling place on election day that almost every other CA resident enjoys.” Two additional points: isn’t the silly election board that draws the precincts in the first place? And if we are so small, wouldn’t it be easy to accommodate the small number of us at our usual polling place, which by the way, is still open?

So, there was no information of what to do on the board of elections web site. I got conflicting advice from the poll workers. One said, go get your mail-in ballot. When I pointed out that it was non-partisan, and did not have the democratic presidential candidates, another worker helpfully suggested that I vote provisionally. I was annoyed at that decision, because it means that my vote will take up to 28 days to be counted.

But then I heard the poll worker say: hey, we are running out of provisional ballots. Steer people away from using them so that we don’t run out! I made the hasty decision to take one of the few remaining ballots (11am!!) so I could vote.

These problems are a BIG deal. More than 1 in 5 voters in the democratic primary in CA are like me as ‘Decline-to-state’ voters, and these voters split better than 2 to 1 in favor of Obama over Clinton. That’s hundreds of thousands of votes. Read this story about the “double bubble trouble” in LA county.

But here’s the worst story so far: Chicago voters were told that broken voting pens were actually ‘invisible ink.’ Wow. We’ve really taken to heart the lessons of the 2000 election, haven’t we?

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Informed voting via prediction markets

January 7th, 2008

My friend Richard sent me this interesting link and email in response to my post yesterday:

[ is] moving beyond prediction markets that try to determine who will win
the election, towards markets that predict the effect of someone
winning the election. In other words, markets that attempt to predict
the price of oil, interest rates, # troops in Iraq, etc. conditional
on the person or party that wins the election.

The design of these markets is theoretically interesting as are
questions as to whether you can get enough liquidity in these more
complex markets to get good results.

But beyond that, there is the potential, mentioned in the blog post,
of using these markets to help people decide how to vote. On one
hand, this seems ridiculous – and maybe even open to abuse or
manipulation. On the other, it’s eminently reasonable. I really want
to vote for the candidate that will be the best president and have the
best outcomes for the country. To the extent that I feel that the
markets are better predictors of these things than I am alone (or in
conjunction with the spouting of pundits or even deliberation),
shouldn’t I base my vote on them?

In my opinion, the most important questions facing voters are: what is the consequence of your voting decision? How will the world be different if one candidate wins rather than the other? Using prediction markets to understand these consequences seems entirely reasonable to me.

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NY Times is selling our product, VGT

November 19th, 2007

Sunday’s Public Editor had a great column talking about what voters want in campaign coverage. A few choice quotes:

“The public wants to know more about candidates’ records, their backgrounds and where they stand on issues — and more about lesser-known candidates.”

and later:

“the fundamental point about the 2008 presidential election [is] the degree to which coverage has moved to the Internet, where many new organizations, especially The Times, are providing information of a breadth and depth that cannot be equaled in the printed newspaper.”

So how about it New York Times: want to expand your coverage of local races with the Voter Guide Toolkit?

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