As Election Season Gears Up, Technological Assistance Lags

Here is the problem: There’s a heck of a lot of stuff that’s both really deeply important and really difficult to understand.

Take politics. When I lived in Denver, I used to hold “voting parties” when election season came around. These nonpartisan soirees weren’t designed to promote or endorse any particular candidate; rather, they were a sort of self-help group for the interpretation of ballot initiatives. “OK, so if you DO want the light rail, vote AGAINST the initiative to fail to renew the funding allocation for the Hummingbird-Dodo State Transportation Allocation,” that sort of thing.

What I learned from those parties is that, to paraphrase Michael Douglas in “The American President,” democracy isn’t easy. You gotta want it bad. Democracy calls on you to make decisions on complex issues about which you have no experience and minimal context. When it comes to national or high-profile elections, you also have to battle an ocean of biased, partisan, self-interested information that’s been bought and paid for many times over -- and often it’s not clear who cut the check.

Clearly, we the citizens need help. Maybe not you. But most of us. Fortunately, one of the things our digital age excels at is making complex topics accessible to non-experts, with initiatives like Khan Academy and TED.com serving as shining examples. So it should be pretty simple to find a technological platform that can help ordinary folks navigate the cumbersome world of politics.

And yet, it’s not. A Google search for “which President should I choose,” yields some interesting results. SelectSmart.com, the first result, looks like a brochure for snake oil, complete with dozens of font sizes and colors and a gigantic, dramatic display ad: “Watch this shocking video to reveal an amazing trick for your brain to learn new languages!” And yes, I agree that an important issue like the presidency should be more about substance than style -- but what we’re after here is assistance in processing a complicated topic, and interface matters.

Onwards. Glassbooth.org does well on the interface, asking visitors to allocate 20 points across a range of issues (foreign policy, Internet and media, etc.) to indicate personal priorities. A simple quiz then reveals alignment with the various candidates. The problem came when the results of the quiz were revealed and advised me of my level of alignment with John McCain. Come on, guys. It’s 2012. Maybe time to update the content?

Third on the SERP was GovCentral.com -- with a 10-question quiz that could have been ripped straight from Cosmopolitan magazine. Oh, and the quiz was from 2008. At this point I was starting to get pretty disappointed in Google for even bothering to serve up these links.

The most useful of the links I clicked was Scott Berkun’s essay on How to pick a president, complete with a 6-step, 30-minute homework assignment to guide yourself. (Step one: read the Constitution.) Despite the fact that the essay was also from 2008, it’s useful reading for this election and beyond.

I’m well aware that this column is read overseas as well, so feel free to let me know if your country has a good platform for helping citizens wield our democratic power. For now, it looks like there might just be a gap in the market.

Tags: commentary
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