These three elements are (somewhat) new:
- politicians directly participate
- at a non-partisan platform, and
- there is an emphasis on dialogue instead of Q&A or monologuing.
I say somewhat new because there has long been experimentation with online engagement on (partisan) forums associated with Presidental races. This began in 2004 with the Dean campaign, however innovation along these lines was then largely neglected until Trump:
Trump received tremendous gains, at zero financial cost, through direct participation (1) on the non-partisan Twitter platform (2). He did not innovate with dialogue (3), this is unsurprising since conversational democracy is completely antithetical to his style as a politician.
Fortunately the forum will be trivial for voters to find via searching because there is nothing like it out there. If you Google "pennsylvania congressional district 6" there are hits to single pages at Wikipedia, Ballotpedia and Govtrack, but there are no websites devoted to PA CD06 itself.
If there is an active discussion board about PA CD06 issues, it will be in the crucial top five Google hits in no time. If the voter also has a policy topic in the search keywords, the board will be the first Google hit.
The forum will also get on voters' radar due to social media sharing. Modern discussion board software is well integrated with the big sites like Facebook; sharing can be done with a single click.
I am new to internet forums/discussion boards, how do they work?
They are a form of social media which foster online conversations. This Wikipedia article is a good introduction.
The prototype forum's FAQ page covers the basic mechanics; to access it while in the forum, click on the Forum dropdown menu at the top, then the ‘FAQ - Software’ link. Also useful is this more detailed user guide.
Why not host a District Forum within Facebook, since so many people are users of it?
One could certainly create a Facebook group page dedicated to a particular electoral district. However, Facebook is engineered to do a particular task: network posts from people anywhere in the world into a chronological feed.
Just as a spreadsheet program works very poorly as a word processing program, Facebook works very poorly as a discussion hosting platform. Sadly, Facebook used to offer discussion board functionality as a plug-in feature, but stopped doing this several years ago.
Furthermore, information on Facebook often becomes quite difficult to find again later due to the size of the site, and the fact that their search functionality is poor. You can't use external search engines to work around this because Facebook doesn't let bots index the site.
In contrast, open discussion boards get indexed by bots very quickly, and are well organized for setting up and archiving discourse. Modern board software also lets you integrate with Facebook (one-click registration and sharing, for example), so you don't lose much by not being on it.
Finally, for-profit social media sites (especially Facebook) are increasing being used for personalized propaganda. These techniques are so effective that the dark page ads served up might have more influence than what district residents write, which would render the effort counter-productive.
Why is it useful to limit posting privileges to resident of the relevant district?
Because District Forums are centered on shared geography and localized politics. And very importantly: Representatives care a lot about verified constituents from their district; they (appropriately) care much less about the views of non-residents.
How can one certify that a forum user is a district resident?
If the forum user supplies their (1) name, (2) date of birth, and (3) county where they live, this can used to verify that they are on the voting rolls. Afterwards, this information will be stored off-line.
This post outlines
how this could be done in practice. Very usefully, the information needed is not very sensitive, and non-residents will be reluctant to commit identity theft just to troll a board.
It is important for Forum rules and policies to be clear, especially since there is a focus on political discourse. What would they look like?
These are primarily based on the successful and long-running (1994-present) E-Democracy.org forums.
How does the project scale? Can one discussion board host everyone in a state?
No, the largest PhpBB discussion board around handles 120,000 members, while Pennsylvania has over 8 million registered voters. However, there are simple expansion options to scale up the project from the PA.VoterVoices.org domain if things take off.
Each congressional district can be migrated to a subdomain, e.g. CD01 would be moved to PA01.VoterVoices.org, splitting PA into 18 District Forums. 1% participation in a congressional district implies 4,500 discussion board users which is very feasible to run.
What academic research is there which is related to the District Forum concept?
There has been a huge amount of e-democracy activity, both theory and experiments, in the last two decades. Some of this is directly relevant to the District Forum concept. The District Forum Participedia module references the most relevant writings, which are:
- Democracy, deliberation and design: the case of online discussion forums, by Scott Wright and John Street (2007, pdf)
- Democracy for Realists, by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels (2016, preview)
- Direct Representation: Towards a Conversational Democracy, by Stephen Coleman (2005, pdf)
- Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Case of Minnesota E-Democracy, by Lincoln Dahlberg (2001, html)
- Re-constructing digital democracy: An outline of four ‘positions’, by Lincoln Dahlberg (2011, pdf)
- Realising Democracy Online: A Civic Commons in Cyberspace, by Stephen Coleman and Jay G. Blumler (2001, pdf)
- The Internet and Democractic Citizenship, by Stephen Coleman and Jay G. Blumler (2009, preview)
- The Problem of Citizens: E-Democracy for Actually Existing Democracy, by Daniel Kreiss (2015, pdf)
Who is running the VoterVoices project, and why are they doing so?
My name is Travis Mitchell, and I am a research scientist who resides in SE Pennsylvania.
I am trying to start up District Forums because I strongly believe that non-partisan platforms for voters to interact with politicians are an important public good. Making them more available and easier-to-use should eventually result in our political leaders becoming more responsive to the concerns of ordinary voters.
This is a non-profit, volunteer-run project. No software development is needed thanks to the contributions of the open-source software coders at phpBB.com.
Forum hosting costs are low enough that a District Forum can be maintained by its local volunteers, and that is my ‘business model’ for the spread of the concept.