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Tech Tools for Voters
by
Posted On December 3, 2007


Election 2008 has unleashed a whole new tool chest for the voting public to engage, discuss, and interact with presidential candidates and members of Congress. Do you want more, in-depth answers to complicated questions on healthcare, global warming, border security, or social security? Do you want detailed, articulate, thoughtful answers to these and other complex issues that will affect the entire country for generations to come? The issues are too complicated and too important to be boiled down to a 30-second sound bite. Recently, several groups have launched tools and widgets that can help the average voter ask questions of the candidates; they include 10Questions.com (www.10questions.com), Straight2thecandidates.com (www.straight2thecandidates.com), and AskyourLawmaker.com (www.askyourlawmaker.com).

The three sites are, in part, an outgrowth and extension of the YouTube/CNN Democratic Presidential Debate that took place on July 23, 2007. Unlike other debates where journalists posed questions to the presidential candidates, interested participants submitted questions via YouTube, and CNN selected 39 questions to ask the Democratic presidential hopefuls. The debate broke new ground by introducing technology to politics in a creative and exciting way. However, many were not satisfied. They wanted more control over questions, more control over feedback, and the ability to respond. They wanted to put the control into the hands of the community of users who could decide what questions to ask the candidates. Critics argued that instead of CNN having the final say in which questions to ask, the community of voters should have the final say on what questions the candidates should be required to answer.

David Calarusso, a high school physics teacher, created Community Counts (www.communitycounts.com), a mashup "of YouTube videos aimed at compelling the candidates to answer the questions most valued by the community" (www.techpresident.com/node/1991). On the day of the debate, Community Counts had thousands of visitors watch and rate the nearly 3,000 videos that had been submitted to YouTube for the debate. The site caught the attention of mainstream media, but it also caught the attention of Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry, the founders of Techpresident.com (www.techpresident.com) and Personal Democracy Forum (www.personaldemocracy.com). A few months later, 10Questions was born.

10Questions.com bills itself as "the first truly people-powered online presidential forum that seeks to involve millions of voters in prioritizing the questions they want answered, and moving politicians away from sound-bites to in-depth discussion of issues" (www.10questions.com/faq.html). Techpresident.com produces 10Questions.com, but a large and weighty group of bloggers, mainstream media, and advocacy groups are sponsors of the effort (www.10questions.com/sponsors.html). In addition, MSNBC.com supports the project, and The New York Times editorial board has also lent its support by sending letters to all of the presidential candidates asking them to participate in the 10Questions project. A link to the 10Questions.com site is available on the New York Times opinion page, and a link to the top 10 questions and answers will also be made available (www.nytimes.com/opinion).

10Questions has two rounds. The first round (Oct. 17 to Nov. 14) allowed anyone with access to YouTube, MySpace, Yahoo! Video, AOL Video, Blip.tv, or TeacherTube to submit video questions. All of the 10Questions videos were made available, and voting lasted until Nov. 14. The round closed on Nov. 14 and the top 10 videos are now available for review. The second round began on Nov. 17 and will end on Dec. 31. The candidates have been asked to post their answers by Dec. 15. After Dec. 15, anyone can vote/rate the answers given by the candidates. At the end of the round, an audit will be done of the ratings, and the final results will be announced. To date, candidates John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul have agreed to answer the questions. The goal set by 10Questions is to get beyond the 30-second sound bite and to have greater discussion and interaction between the candidates and the voting public.

Straight2thecandidates.com is a group effort led by 16 American University freshmen inspired by http://direktzu.de, the German student-created Web site. Direktzu, launched by Alexander Puschkin and Caveh Zonooz, tapped into the frustration students felt concerning grants for education and the lack of response on the part of legislators to answer their questions and address their concerns. Zonooz and Puschkin created a site that utilized current Web tools (email, audio, and video) and allowed anyone to post questions to specific legislators. The top questions that received answers were published on the Web site for everyone to see. Zonooz and Puschkin have been recruiting other student groups to embrace similar projects.

Enter Straight2thecandidates.com. The site is divided into two parts: Speak Out and Listen In. Speak Out let visitors post questions (via text, audio, or video) to the candidates of their choosing. Each candidate has a button; the size of the button provides a measure of how many questions have been submitted for that candidate. Listen In allows visitors to listen to questions posted by other users. "Listeners" can rate questions on a 1 to 10 scale, and comments are allowed for all questions. At the end of each week, the top questions are sent to the candidates. It is hoped that the candidates will take this seriously and answer the questions sent to them.

Sunlight Foundation grantee Capitol News Connection (CNC; www.cncnews.org/index.php), an independent news service that provides news to public radio stations across the country, has launched a new, interactive, and customizable widget that allows us—the voting public—to ask questions of congressional as well as presidential candidates. The widget is available at AskyourLawmaker.com (www.askyourlawmaker.com/widget). Concerned citizens can upload their questions (text, audio, or video) via the widget. Askyourlawmaker.com, a Digg-like Web site, allows visitors to vote on the questions for any congressman, senator, or presidential candidate. CNC journalists will ask "at least 10 questions a day" and upload the audio response to the "Ask Your Lawmaker" Web site and to the widget. CNC journalists will also ask "follow-up" questions to ensure that the candidates and lawmakers really answer the questions. "The goal of this mix of citizen journalism and traditional journalism focuses on enabling and improving the dialogue between members of Congress and citizens" (www.sunlightfoundation.com/node/2408).

These sites and others that spring up throughout the election year are valuable and critical for the American public to feel engaged and invested in the political process. The sites use technology tools to motivate American citizens to get involved in the upcoming election. The innovation, creativity, and variety of the tools showcase the power and reach of the Web. However, it has to be a two-way street. The public can ask the questions, but the candidates, regardless of the office (president, congressman, senator, governor, state legislator) must take this seriously and respond with more than talking points and canned campaign speeches. It will only work if the candidates offer real leadership and vision by embracing the new technologies to explain the issues and their solutions to the American public. These sites shout out to the world that the democratic spirit lives on in the American people. Which candidate(s) will take the lead and embrace the new technologies, use them to offer thoughtful, compelling, and realistic solutions to the problems we face in the 21st century? Stay tuned.

[ For more information about online political sites, see Gordon-Murnane’s cover story in the November/December issue of Searcher, "The 51st State: The State of Online," which is available online at www.infotoday.com/searcher/nov07/Gordon-Murnane_51stState.pdf. See also the NewsLink article by Paula J. Hane, "Political Fact-Check Web Sites," at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=39759. —Ed.]


Laura Gordon-Murnane has an M.L.S. and works in Washington, D.C. She writes frequently for Searcher.

Email Laura Gordon-Murnane

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