July 30, 2009

California’s Secretary of State: Come and collaborate!

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Debra Bowen

JD LasicaSpent Wednesday night at SocialVoter, a special event featuring California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and presented by CitizenSpace and the Social Media Club. You can follow the tweets on Twitter — for the next two weeks, anyway, when they disappear. So I thought a blog recap would be in order.

Here, too, is a Flickr photo set of the gathering.

For readers who don’t know Debra Bowen, she’s one of the most forward-looking public officials in the land, with a presence on Twitter (@DBowen) and Facebook and, more importantly, a commitment to bringing the public into public policy discussions.

The conversation between Bowen and the 35 participants in the room was free-flowing and wide-ranging, with suggestions about how to provide voters with critical information about candidates and ballot initiatives, how to crowdsource ballot explanations, how to increase transparency in the election process, et al.

Instant runoffs and crowdsourcing ballot arguments

Some highlights:

• Debra Bowen: “The most important resource we have in the Secretary of State’s Office is that I’m there and I want to make this happen. I want people to tell me about how they think this should work. … That’s your job, to figure out where this might go” and to help her and her staff work in a highly collaborative way. “What if people actually worked at the front of the policy chain instead of reacting to it?”

Echoes of President Obama’s call for bottom-up civic participation.

• One practical reason Bowen is looking to democratize some of the work that might traditionally fall to her office: The Secretary of State’s office has 470 employees. 80% of them are doing corporate and business filings and document processing. The elections staff has fewer than 30 employees. The voter education “staff” consists of one full-time and two part-time workers.

• I’ve long been among those who support a system of “instant runoff voting,” which San Francisco has done in the past and Alameda County and other districts are now seriously considering.

In an instant runoff, voters get to vote for not just their favorite candidate but their second and third choices, allowing citizens to vote for their preferred candidate rather than the lesser of two evils. If your candidate finishes out of the running, your vote goes to your second choice, allowing races with multiple candidates to be decided instantly without a runoff. Brilliant.

Said Bowen: “One of the conditions will be a voter education program so we don’t lose a big chunk of voters for an election or two while they figure out how it works.”

• For decades, California voters have been presented with two sides of every ballot proposition, pro and con. “East of the Mississippi, no one does this,” Bowen said. They’re either flummoxed or amazed. But some states are looking to California to emulate the practice.

Meantime, Bowen is taking the pro and con idea one step further. What if we crowdsourced the ballot arguments? she asked us. How would that look? Who polices it? How could people contribute, and should the arguments be limited to just two?

• Bowen asked for a resource with an easy-to-understand glossary for the public to learn about terms like social media, APIs and Creative Commons. I pointed out that Socialbrite.org has the best social media glossary around, and we’re happy to expand it. (It’s shareable under a Creative Commons BY license.)

• One especially good idea: Use the social graf when it comes to financial disclosure to identify which groups are backing what propositions.

• More Bowen: “I don’t think there’s anyone in California with a .gov address who’s done anything with a wiki.” It’s time to change that, and the group came close to agreement on setting up a public site to document all of these resources.

• Bowen: “95% of the voter education budget is spent on newsprint to print the voter information guide.” Almost zero for online info.

• I asked about restrictions against rewarding people for voting. In New Jersey, you can get free donuts or a cup of coffee for showing your voting slip. Not so in California, where giving a voter a donut for voting is a crime. There are no federal laws against the practice, Bowen told me. But there may be good reasons for the state’s prohibition, which prevents monied interests from shepherding poor voters to the polls to vote for a specific issue.

Grassroots politics resources

WhiteboardSome of the grassroots organizations and resources that were mentioned during the evening:

• The Sunlight Foundation for its pioneering work providing watchdog tools and advocating for political reform and transparency.

• Dan Ancona is building a “Democracy Dashboard,” which he showed me (looks really cool) and which will be ready for release soon.

Uservoice, a way to turn customer feedback into action.

Ideascale, a “crowdsourcing platform providing a way to suggest and discuss ideas for increasing openness and transparency.”

Google Moderator, a tool that allows distributed communities to submit and vote on questions for talks, presentations and events.

Civio, a voter activation network that debuts this fall.

TransparentDemocracy, a site that helps you understand your election choices so you can vote more intelligently.

SmartVoter and California Voter Foundation.

• The League of Women Voters, natch. and the League of Young Voters.

Citability.org, making government “accessible, reliable and trasparent” through permalinks.

• Lala.com, a service that will give you a link to a song you want to cite so you can share it where you want.

• Adina Levin mentioned discussions around hacking open government at OSCON last week, though not sure where to look for info about that.
JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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5 thoughts on “California’s Secretary of State: Come and collaborate!

  1. Would the startup Civio be helpful with the crowdsourcing exploration? And council of state goverments supports creation of model legislation… maybe they could get involved and/or discuss the structures that are created out of this discussion to consider adopting in other states