It is a non-partisan, on-going, online townhall for direct conversations between politicians and their constituents.
Voter Forums are organized and conducted within Facebook, but their content is mirrored to an external website (because old Facebook content is so difficult to find).
A more detailed definition can be read at Participedia.net, where they are called ‘District Forums’. This presentation also covers the motivation for the project, provides some history of related ‘digital democracy’ projects, and addresses some obvious criticisms.
What is new about Voter Forums?
Actually, not much! The three main elements:
- politicians directly participate,
- at a non-partisan platform, and
- engage mainly in dialogue with constituents instead of Q&A or monologues,
are not uncommon although combining all three is new.
A little history: politicians have been experimenting with (1) direct online participation since the early 90’s, with Vice President Al Gore’s 1994 ‘interactive townhall’ being a notable early example.
Likewise, there has long been experimentation with (3) online dialogue, mainly on partisan forums associated with US campaigns. The 2004 Howard Dean campaign for President, managed by Joe Trippi, was a pioneer here. However innovation along these lines was then largely neglected until the 2016 Trump campaign:
Trump received tremendous gains, at zero financial cost, through direct participation (1) on the non-partisan (2) Twitter platform. However he did not innovate with dialogue (3), unsurprisingly since conversational democracy is completely antithetical to his style as a politician.
There are over 100 million Facebook pages, why would anyone notice Voter Forum activity?
Search engine results are one way to attract readers. Facebook is closed to search engine index bots, but Voter Forum conversations mirrored on the central website will have high rankings on Google searches because there are so few in-depth discussions focused around electoral districts out there.
For example, 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 the issues facing PA CD-06 itself.
Once a few conversations have been posted, the central Voter Forum website 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.
Of course, only ‘policy voters’ actively seek out information about issues. We also need to get on the radar of the ~85% who are mainly ‘identity voters’. To do this we will (among other things) encourage social media sharing by policy voters.
Creating ‘policy voters’ out of ‘identity voters’ is a central goal for the Voter Forums project. We believe that if we create easily-found sources of easily-followed conversations about policy, this will slowly but surely help citizens begin to factor policy more into their voting decisions.
If we are right, then even if Voter Forums are only noticed by a small percentage of the voters they can still have an important impact on, for example, close elections.
Why limit question posting and conversation privileges to residents of the relevant district?
Because Voter Forums have a focus on the shared geography and localized politics of the district. And very importantly: readers of the forum care about the opinions of their neighbors; they (appropriately) care much less about the views of non-residents.
Why use forum moderation to enforce a civil atmosphere and require substantive posts?
Because otherwise the Voter Forum will fill up with insulting and lightweight posts. Such as this real life example:
Participating politicians would be given Voter Forum administrator privileges so that staffers could assist with forum moderation.
Can staffers speak for politicians at a Voter Forum?
Politicians don't (generally) write all of their speeches nowadays, and there would be no expectation that they personally compose all of what they post in a Voter Forum. However they are expected to be aware of, and to defend, anything that is posted in their name.
Staffers are welcome to directly engage with constituents in a Voter Forum as long as they identify themselves and their role. The current social media norm, where staffers tacitly encourage the illusion that their politician employer writes all posts, is dishonest.
Given how common bot and troll accounts are, how can one certify that a Facebook account belongs to a district resident?
If the account user supplies their (1) name, (2) date of birth, and (3) county where they live to the Facebook Group admin, this information can used to verify online that this person is on the voting rolls (at least in PA and many other states).
Very usefully, the information needed is not very sensitive. Providing false information is not likely given that doing this is criminalized as identity theft, but if doubts arive admins can look at the posts made from the account to verify that they are consistent with district residence.
What is the ‘conversational democracy’ movement and how is it related to the Voter Forum concept?
There has been a huge amount of e-democracy activity - theory, observation and experiments - in the last two decades. Some of this makes the case for online innovation towards a more ‘conversational democracy’, and these works in particular have helped shape the Voter Forums project.
Two of the most relevant publications are freely available to read online:
- 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)
The District Forum Participedia module lists additional relevant work in its references and hyperlinks.
Who makes up the Voter Forums project, and why are they working to set up Voter Forums?
The project leader is Travis Mitchell, a research scientist who resides in SE Pennsylvania.
The Voter Forums project is non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots-run. We are working on it because we strongly believe that non-partisan platforms for voters to meaningfully interact with politicians are an important public good. Making online Voter Forums available and easy-to-access should eventually result in our political leaders becoming more responsive to the concerns of ordinary voters.