Low voter turnout, disenfranchisement, and extreme polarization are bad news for any democracy. But with most communications working as a one-way street from officials to the people, it’s hard for voters to tell their local government what really matters to them.
Sure there are town halls, phone calls and social media, but these are usually dominated by the loudest voices, and don’t always represent the full picture of what citizens want.
Wouldn’t government work better if it was easier for constituents to share their concerns?
San Diego-based founder Mike Allman first started asking this question while watching a town hall on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He watched as one participant grabbed the microphone and didn’t let go, effectively monopolizing the conversation with his views.
Allman started thinking, what if these constituents — the ones who made the most noise — weren't pushing the same things the quieter majority wanted? What do you do if you represent a group of people with a wide range of views? Was there a way to govern based on individual issues, rather than just working down party lines?
Doing this would require a tool to make it easier for voters to communicate with candidates or elected officials, and for those in government to aggregate and understand their constituents’ opinions.
As he started designing blueprints for this new platform, Allman decided to run an early pilot: using himself as the test case. He ran for California’s 52nd Congressional District in 2018, and while he didn’t win, the campaign was a crash course in the electoral process, as well as an incubator for his new product: Voterfied. As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with Allman to talk about how Voterfied can make it easier for local governments to hear and act on their constituents’ feedback.
What does Voterfied do?
Local officials can pose a question or an issue, provide some context, and collect input — either anonymous or public — from voters in the district.
Questions can be just about anything, says Allman:
“For example, a local government could ask, to improve pedestrian safety, should scooters be banned from city boardwalks and limited to bicycle lanes only?”
The key piece here is these are actual voters. All users must opt in to the tool and sign up with two-step identification. Then, the Voterfied system verifies users by matching their name, address, and date of birth against voter registration records. If the user is in fact registered in the district, they’ll be able to participate. If they aren’t, or if their record can’t be found, they’ll be directed to a local voter registration site.
This verification process is the key, says Allman:
“It ensures the feedback the governments or candidates receive on the platform is actually coming from voters in their district.”
Voterfied offers a wide range of data for government officials to use, including real-time feedback tracking, notifications if users change their answer (useful to gauge the impact on policy or messaging adjustments), and geographic breakdown by ward or district within a larger jurisdiction.
Data can be treated like an open forum, such as a town hall or city council meeting, where the commenters are public, or it can be confidential, similar to voting in an election. All data in the Voterfied system is secure and controlled by the local government.
The platform can be branded to match the local government’s website, and all questions, text, and welcome emails can be customized. Fees start at $500 per month for smaller constituencies, $1,000 for larger ones. (The account holder pays; Voterfied is free for constituents to use.)
What’s in it for cities?
So far, Voterfied has primarily focused on elected officials and candidates. For example, Matt Hall, Mayor of Carlsbad, California, used the tool for his successful reelection campaign in 2018.
But the platform presents a powerful opportunity for local governments.
Just as Mayor Hall posted polls on Voterfied about the potential use of license plate readers, the issues of short-term vacation rentals, and the possible construction of a community center, local officials could gather feedback from constituents on proposed initiatives.
The benefits are threefold:
Governments can actually invest funds in the issues citizens care about. Allman points to Carlsbad as an example:
“When Matt Hall ran his re-election campaign in Carlsbad, he learned that his constituents were in favor of designating part of the beach as dog-friendly. This was one of the most popular questions on his Voterfied site.”
Not only did this allow the city of Carlsbad to better understand where to allocate resources for current projects, the feedback led to future budget planning as well.
Organizing town halls takes time — so does attending them. Quantifying phone calls and feedback from social media can overwhelm small offices. Allman explains:
“Governmental offices receive citizen input in a haphazard manner through emails, phone calls and letters.”
By providing a feedback channel that citizens can use on their smartphones or computers, on their own schedule, the city can streamline the community engagement process and get more actionable results.
By sourcing and sharing public opinion data, officials can more clearly demonstrate that the local government is listening to and acting on behalf of the constituents. Allman notes this has multiple uses:
“This helps hold governments accountable to the people. Whether elected officials back the majority view on a given issue or if they have to explain why they went in a different direction. This helps improve communication with constituents, especially when elected officials choose to go against the popular view.”
Local governments can even use the platform’s segmentation tools to understand how different areas or demographics voted and target outreach accordingly. Ultimately this creates a more customized discourse with citizens.
These approaches are big strides toward improving local communities. With Voterfied, these initiatives would be even easier to implement, analyze, and produce results.