The Democracy Disruptor: how do you boost political engagement among voters?

'Politics is a sideshow to the great circus of life', said the late social scientist Robert Dahl.

How do you boost voter participation, on both sides of the Atlantic? asks Jack Barber
How do you boost voter participation, on both sides of the Atlantic? asks Jack Barber
The maxim is easily forgotten by those on a steady diet of the Today programme, political Twitter feed and Newsnight.

Politics is not always top priority for the majority of people. Just last week the Hillary Clinton campaign, conscious that key swing states including Florida and North Carolina were severely disrupted by Hurricane Matthew, unsuccessfully appealed for the impending voter registration deadline to be extended.  

Even without a natural disaster, encouraging political participation – whether during campaigns, at the ballot, or in government – can be tricky for many reasons.

Courting younger voters is a case in point. In America and Britain alike, millennials rival baby-boomers in number, yet as a report by Pew Research underlines, young people are disproportionately less likely to turn out, while their grandparents are reliably found at voting booths.  

Some might say there is no excuse: it takes five minutes to register, get on with it. Rock the Vote, Vote.plz and Bite the Ballot are three examples of earnest attempts to make the existing system easier and more accessible to navigate. 

In America, however, 18 states don’t have online registration, and many others require identification – driving licences, insurance numbers – that not all voters have readily to hand. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli argued, for a generation used to summoning food, taxis and apartments in a click, voting is a bad user experience.

Each non-voter is a missed opportunity for both campaigners and the democratic process. Instead of simply digitising existing systems, we should think big about how innovation can enhance existing political participation and even transform it.

Popular engagement with politics shouldn’t have to be this way, especially when there are myriad ways to reach people where they are receptive to information and advice. The digital age has had some impact on political behavior, but the untapped potential remains massive.

Facebook already issued reminders to its users to register via links provided. This non-partisan nudge was felt across generational, geographical and social backgrounds: several states recorded an unprecedented surge in voter registrations. Twitter similarly used its direct mail function to help users find voter registration deadlines and the information to take action.

Short of compelling people to turn out, as Australia does, political participation will always be an option, not an obligation. However, some start-ups are beginning to venture upstream: how to address the causes of voter apathy? 

Countable.us, a web- and app-based platform, is built on the premise that political news and issues can be initially hard to understand, contextualise and keep up with. In a unique twist, the platform combines brief, layman’s summaries of key issues and debates with the capacity to send video messages direct to your congressperson’s email, based on your location. 

The thinking is that education and empowerment go hand in hand, and, in the process, elected officials can be more representative of those they serve (else be continuously held accountable). This might produce a constant campaign environment, with politicians sweating about their user rating. 

On one hand, that could force a more populist form of politics. On the other, it compels politicians to make an effective case for affirmative moral decisions, to carry voters with them. That might be no bad thing. 

This tiny start-up may not succeed. Its target audience is those less likely to vote – hardly a conventional vanguard. But its very existence strikes a tone that should be widely adopted.

We are primed for a disruptor in the democracy sector. Radical engagement at every level of the system is not a bad place to start. 

For those of us wrapped up in the politics sideshow, it is time to work out how to reconnect with those caught up in the great circus of life. 

In light of last weekend’s campaign farce, it might be time to get back to the voters themselves.

Jack Barber is an Oxford graduate reporting on the US presidential campaign from Washington DC and the inaugural winner of Hanover Communications’ Mackay Award 

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