Elect IT: Technology and the Democratic Process2 |
On Election Day 2008, Americans will head en masse to the polls to cast their ballots in an undoubtedly historic election. But what the average voter might not realize is this election is historic in more ways than one.
Not only has information technology enabled voters to have more access to information about the candidates and the electoral process, but it’s never been easier for people to participate in the process, as the Internet has helped break down barriers to both transparency and accessibility.
“People expect to get the information they want with a quick Web search, and as more people experience the power of having information at their fingertips, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to keep any of its information behind closed doors,” said Daniel Newman, executive director and co-founder of MAPLight.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to show the public the connection between money and politics.
IT has opened those doors, as voters have better access to candidates’ views and finances, as well as a clearer understanding of how to register, where to vote and what’s on the ballot.
In prior years, public government information was held captive, available only to those who could afford to pay a fee.
“Government agencies would often make their data sets available only in bulk on big computer tapes,” Newman explained. That meant it was practical only for large database companies to load these tapes onto their computers and sell access by the hour back to the public.
“Citizens had to pay fees to search databases that were public information and generated by tax dollars. As we’ve moved toward the Internet era, [it’s become] possible [for] government agencies to make all this information available. And they can do it relatively inexpensively.”
One such agency that has made tremendous strides in this effort is the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that discloses campaign-finance information for presidential, House and Senate candidates.
Five years ago, the organization’s Web site was difficult to navigate; now, with a few clicks of the mouse, a user can find out how much money a candidate has raised, who contributed to the campaign and how the candidate spent those funds.
“I look at information technology, here at the Federal Election Commission, to act as a facilitator and to make it easy for people to become educated on the campaign finance process,” said Alec Palmer, chief information officer and co-privacy officer. “The easier that we can make it for the individuals doing research, or for the general citizen from just a point of curiosity, the better off the democratic process.”
MAPLight.org is another example of improved transparency. This particular nonprofit uses three databases of information to illustrate the connection between campaign contributions and how legislators vote.
“The hundreds of millions of dollars that politicians raise to run their campaigns often comes from interest groups that have a stake in legislation,” Newman said. “Even though many people know this general concept, there was not much information out there on the specifics of how money influences legislation. So [we] set out to build what would be a continuous example generator of how money influences our political system.”
The first component of the example generator is how each member of Congress votes on every bill. To get this information, MAPLight uses GovTrack.us, an automated service that polls the Library of Congress site every 15 minutes to determine whether any recent votes or changes have been made. GovTrack.us then “downloads those changes, parses it into a structured format and then MAPLight imports” that information into its MySQL database, Newman said.
The second component of MAPLight’s research is the campaign money that’s given to each member of Congress, a record of which is filed with the FEC. The Center for Responsive Politics — a nonprofit research group — takes that information, processes and analyzes it, and then classifies each contribution into one of 400 industry denominations (e.g., oil company, environmental group). Once a month, after the candidates have filed their reports, MAPLight imports the data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The third and final component is collected in-house through intense manual research. MAPLight’s research team selects a bill and reads the congressional testimony about that bill. If any of the speakers came out in support or opposition of the bill, the researchers log into the back-end Web database, make a note of which organization the speaker represented, whether the speaker was a supporter or opponent and the source for that information. This process is repeated with news databases and Internet searches.
In the end, these three sources work together on the site to provide information such as which organizations gave money to which politicians, how those politicians voted on specific bills and whether there’s a connection between the money given and how the politician voted.
“All of this information would have taken days, if not weeks, to collect and analyze before MAPLight.org came along,” Newman said. “What [you] see that you could never see before is how money correlates with the votes.”
For this upcoming presidential election, MAPLight also has downloadable, customizable widgets that can compare funds raised by Sen. Barack Obama to the funds raised by Sen. John McCain. There are similar widgets for the congressional candidates.
“Often people say, ‘Well, so what if there’s more information? Do people really want more information?’” Newman said. “It’s not so much [that] people will check MAPLight as often as they check the weather report. No, rather journalists, bloggers and active citizens [who] are already the sources of information for their communities will rely on MAPLight and other cutting-edge tools to extract key pieces of information. That power to drill down quickly to get a key connection will revolutionize democracy.”
Behind the Scenes
IT hasn’t just had an impact on information accessibility; it’s also had an impact on the electoral process. For instance, in Minnesota, technology has affected the way information is distributed to the public, how voters cast their ballots and the way election results are reported.
In terms of informing the public, Minnesota provides online information about the electoral process such as what’s on the ballot and where to vote. But this year, Minnesota went above and beyond and developed the Caucus Finder, which is based on Polling Place Finder, in preparation for caucus season. The application, the first tool of its kind, allowed residents to enter their addressees and find out where all of the political parties in Minnesota were caucusing.
To obtain the caucus locations, though, the state had to coordinate with each of the parties. “We gave [the parties] an Excel spreadsheet,” said Ted Lautzenheiser, chief information officer for the secretary of state’s office. “They would fill it out, and then we had the ability to load that into our system. We used DTS [data transformation services] and SSIS [SQL server integration services] packages and SQL server to load the data from Excel. Sometimes, it’s not how technically eloquent the solution is, but are you using a solution that everyone can use?”
The tool proved unexpectedly successful, and the state had an unbelievably large turnout for the caucuses, four times more than in 2004, according to Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s secretary of state.1 | 2 |