A lot has been said about how technology is changing elections, and how it can help turn out the vote. However, there is still a lot to be done about the "in-between" election time, when no political deadline forces elected officials or citizens to engage in a transparent debate. Could the everyday battle that is democracy, be won thanks to technology?
Companies like Nationbuilder, Causes or its newly-acquired Votizen, have gained exposure in the past few years, as it became clear that they were creating a new path to a more democratic process. As Techcrunch reported, those three companies empowered ordinary folks or new candidates, by giving them tools to easily engage in civic action.
Local democracy could be the big winner from all this. For instance, now "smaller" local candidates with little money or clout, can run a successful campaign on a platform like NationBuilder.
Enter a new startup in the activism field, MyMaryland.net, which officially launched today. The site focuses on local democracy in-between elections, by building online town halls available 24/7, for local officials to interact with their verified constituents.
Ben Simon, founder, a 23 years-old student at University of Maryland, also created the non-profit Food Recovery Network and decided to shift his attention to the everyday democratic process, after witnessing the increasing frustration over the political system: "I wondered what democracy would look like if it worked really well".
"My goal in the long-run is to create MyAmerica, a site with online town halls available in all 50 states," Ben told Examiner.com. But he first needed to test the concept in his own state, and started out with two Maryland districts.
The platform creates a sort of private social network for state and federal elected officials, on which their registered voters can post, rate and discuss policies among neighbors of the same district (see preview here). Elected officials can also poll their constituents, post and comment, and later on Ben plans to add Google hangouts for video Q&A sessions that will be posted to the forum.
Ben travelled to Annapolis a few weeks ago, to chat with legislators and test the waters. He was met with enthusiasm, as one state legislator told him, she received over a thousand emails about gun control in one day, and found out only 5% came from voters of her own district.
"The core problem today is the huge amount of distance between elected officials and their voters. We thought the best way to bridge that gap was to actually put everybody in the same room, that's the idea of the online 'town hall' where you can engage in a real conversation."
As of today, the site gathers 200 forum pages, one for each of Maryland's state and federal elected officials.
The team of three, Ben, co-founder and CTO Rahul Singh, and lead designer Lucas Dailey, met with 65 elected officials last year to gather feedback. One legislator in particular, Delegate Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20), has been a vocal supporter of MyMaryland: "communication between representatives and residents is critical to making government work, and sites like MyMaryland.net are a great way to foster better communication.”
The team raised $75,000 over the past year, from diverse organizations such as the non-profit and non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, the Points of Light civic accelerator program, a University of Maryland competition for social enterprise and even 'Google for non-profits', which awarded them $120,000 worth of AdWords. "Our goal now is to build a powerful community and really start getting traction from people."
"This could work on a donation-based system," Ben explains, "but the business model is really to sell this tool to districts and counties' elected officials, as well as universities and large organizations." University of Maryland was the first to test the concept, and all students can now interact with UMD's leadership on the site.
"Our priority is to make MyMaryland valuable and useful to voters and politicians first," Lucas says, "there will be a lot of explaining and marketing to do for the online town hall concept, but it makes a lot of sense to discuss policies with your own constituents and your own neighbors, because you share those issues, so it's really about local democracy."
As Causes CEO Matt Mahan said, we're at the threshold of "a new era of civic engagement online". It seems to be only the beginning, new startups being born everyday with the goal of transforming our democracy.
Do you think technology can solve democracy's problems? Hit the comments below!