Joe Trippi pioneered the use of social media as a fundraising tool. As campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004, he started a trend that has reinvented that way politicians run for office. But he believes that many politicians are still missing out on the power of the internet once they’re elected.
“There’s been a lot of focus on winning campaigns, but there’s been less focus on governing,” Trippi says. “There are a lot of tools out there for campaigns to talk to voters, but not as many looking at how to give citizens and voters more impact on actual elected leaders in Congress.”
That’s why Trippi is working with an internet startup called Countable, which seeks to give citizens a greater voice in national politics. The company’s online service, which launches to the public today, gives you a simple and concise overview of the bills your national representatives are debating, and it lets you instantly send emails to these representatives, telling them how you would like them to vote.
Countable joins a growing wave of online tools that can improve the dialogue between citizens and representatives, including Madison, which lets you add your thoughts to both proposed bills and existing policies, and ThinkUp, a tool the White House uses to gauge popular sentiment through social media. The new service is most similar to Democracy OS, which lets governments and non-profits set up websites where people can discuss issues and vote on particular topics. But instead of building a platform that government operations must install on their own computer servers, Countable is offering a ready-made service.
In other words, you don’t have to wait for your representatives to adopt anything. All you have to do is sign up and start sending your thoughts to Congress.
Politics in Plain English
Countable was founded by Peter Arzhintar and Bart Myers. The pair previously founded the web TV company SideReel, which they sold in 2011. “We were talking about what to do next, and we’re both passionate about politics,” says Myers, who was also involved in the Dean campaign in 2004. “We were interested in what happened with campaign finance reform and SOPA, but we were disappointed with the tools that were out there to drive advocacy and let the average voter to get involved.”
They noticed that there were plenty of sites where you can find lists of bills being debated by Congress, but understanding those bills usually required quite a bit of specialized knowledge. They decided that one of the best ways to improve the political process would be to simply create a site that explained each bill that the House and Senate is voting on in plain English. So they built Countable.
For now, you need a Facebook account to use the new service. Countable taps your Facebook profile information to determine your name, location, and your national representatives. It then shows you the next piece of legislation your representatives are expected to vote on, with a short summary of the bill and a list of pros and cons. You can click “yea” or “nay” to automatically send an e-mail to your representatives, or you can “skip” it. You can also click on the bill’s name to pull up more details, including voting activity, costs, links to media coverage, and the full text of the bill.
Countable then keeps track of how your representatives vote on bills compared to the way you wanted them to vote, giving you a “compatibility ranking” for each one. But the company will also use this data to target adverting.
The startup just closed its seed funding round, and it’s now working on an iOS app, which Myers says should launch in about a month. So things are just getting started, and the company plans to add more tools to the service in the future, such as the ability to get voting recommendations from advocacy groups that you trust, ask your friends how you should vote, or suggest changes to a bill. It may eventually cover state level politics as well.
It’s All in the Details
One of the biggest challenges the company faces is providing enough information for citizens to develop informed opinions, without overwhelming them with details. “Fortunately, most pieces of legislation can be reasonably straight forward,” Myers says. “It’s when you get into complicated legislation with different political motivations associated with it that things get hard.”
For example, politicians often add amendments to bills that contain additional regulations or spending unrelated to the bill in question. Myers says that Countable will post updates to bills that have such riders. “Being able to call that out is actually a benefit in what we do,” he says.
The company is hiring writers from a variety of backgrounds, including politics and marketing, to ensure that the content is both accurate and understandable. Myers says the company strives to offer a balanced view of the pros and cons of each piece of legislation. “The editorial team represents multiple different political view points, but it will never be perfect,” he admits. To improve develop the editorial process, the company is also advised by former Reuters News publisher Andrew Goldner.
The other issue is e-mailing your representatives may not be that effective. And since Countable doesn’t do much to verify that you are who you say you are, a lobbyist or advocacy group could sign-up for multiple accounts and make it look like constituents feel more strongly about an issue than they actually do. But Myers says this isn’t much an issue, at least for now. “When talking with representatives, it’s not a major concern,” Myers says. “You can already e-mail your representatives without verifying your identity.”
Instead, he says, representatives are just keen to find a way to gather data from constituents in a new way. “Most of them would still prefer to get feedback by phone,” he says. “But millennials can barely call their parents, let alone their representatives.”
But the biggest issue facing the company is privacy. It’s hard not to worry about a company that’s compiling dossiers on people’s positions on every single bill in Congress, but Myers says the startup won’t sell data about how its users vote on particular issues to fundraisers or anyone else. “We’re not building a lead-gen business,” Myers says. “Fortunately, our investors are in total agreement. But the terms of service are such that if that ever changes, people will be notified.”
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