The Living Voters Guide: Democracy online

In the first of a series of posts on the winners of the Evergreen Apps Challenge, we’ll focus on the Living Voter’s Guide, which took home prizes for Best Overall App and Best State App. The Living Voter’s Guide is an attempt to improve on the paper-based voter’s guide mailed to every registered voter before an election takes place. These pamphlets include arguments and rebuttals from representatives of the proponents and opponents of a given candidate or ballot measure. In other words, the vast majority of the information in your paper voter’s guide is coming straight from the campaigns. Instead of making it about the campaigns, the Living Voters Guide has made it about the voters.

“Many voters feel overwhelmed and divided on policy questions,” says Seattle CityClub’s Diane Douglas, “especially when there are so many issues that appear on our ballots. They are disheartened by toxic partisan rhetoric and don’t know where to turn for wisdom on the significant decisions before them in upcoming elections. Living Voters Guide offers an opportunity to build a connected and informed electorate from the grassroots up. We hope it inspires public trust in one another.”

In 2010, the first version of the LVG was released by a team from Seattle CityClub and several departments of the University of Washington (Computer Science and Engineering, Political Science, Communications and Human-Centered Design.) The goal, besides conveying basic background information about each ballot measure, was to introduce a kind of interactivity, making the process less about deciding between two extreme arguments and more about an extended discussion between what LVG likes to call “virtual neighbors.”

In the app’s first two elections seasons, more than 25,000 Washington Voters used the Living Voter’s Guide, which hosted discussions of more than 200 state and local ballot initiatives.

Just like the paper Voter’s Guide printed for each election and mailed to your house, the Living Voter’s Guide features the officially designated ballot titles and descriptions from the Office of the Secretary of State. Users are then able to submit their pros and cons and take a position on the issue. Where it begins to differ is in the effort put into fostering civility. According to the Living Voters’ Guide team, “our ranking algorithm identifies the most important factors that resonate across the whole group in a way that helps identify common ground (even across users with opposing positions) and prevents interest groups from taking over the discussion through flooding the site.”

This year’s edition, which launched two weeks ago in preparation for next month’s General Election, will feature one particularly noteworthy innovation: on-demand fact-checking by our city’s most ruthless researchers: the librarians of the Seattle Public Library. If you are skeptical about a point raised by another user, you can request a fact-check. A librarian will respond to verify or debunk the claim–or to explain why it cannot be verified–and to provide additional information and context.

What’s next for the Living Voters Guide? According to Douglas, “We intend to scale LVG’s use in our state and in other states. We also want to expand its features, e.g. making it accommodate multiple languages. Finally, we hope to use it for other kinds of consensus-based decision making beyond voting.”

The Living Voter’s Guide should provide a great resource for voters who want to know more before filling out their ballots–which promise to be especially crowded this year. But as Douglas point out, it’s not just an app’s existence or quality that determines its success: “The biggest factor for success, however is ACCESS–ensuring that these wonderful digital tools are available to everyone in the community.”



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