National Networked Primaries: Weaving a complete national dialogue

This essay is another chapter in the book Jon Lebkowsky and I are writing. It challenges and expands on several of the ideas in the preceding chapter, “Righting the Ship of Democracy,” by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (originally published in Legal Affairs), while suggesting how the structure of their Deliberation Day concept can be applied to the national primary process to integrate local and regional concerns into the presidential primary process and, in Congressional election-only years, into a national discussion of the composition of the representative branch of government. It’s not final yet and I’d appreciate feedback about it. There are a lot of ideas here that I am certain come from discussions with progressive political technologists and one of the main things I am looking for is for people to point out their projects that already aim at or accomplish some of the ideas described here.

Experimentation is essential for the growth of democracy as technology transforms the distance between people and the ease with which ideas can be communicated. The spirit of Deliberation Day, that a new holiday can catalyze a public debate about the direction the country should take, demonstrates a faith in the American system that it can be repaired rather than replaced. There are elements of the Deliberation Day plan that, I believe, don’t take into account the benefits of networked organizing available today—it is a plan suited for a system built on a national media that needs to focus on singular events in order to justify the cost of coverage by television networks, but we are moving past that form of media to one more fragmented, in which more opinions can capture public attention. Additionally, the fact that the plan is predicated on the idea that an electorate that can’t accurately identify the liberal-conservative identity of candidates or parties won’t command the respect of governing officials gets the basic challenge of democracy backwards in my opinion. The electorate have a right to be respected for their concerns regardless of their political sophistication and the experiment I propose here relies on the energy of activists in networks to bring people into the political process based on their immediate concerns and that provides paths to integrating those concerns into broader coalitions through participation. We can aim to improve them by optimizing the sampling of opinion or by creating more opportunities for political engagement at the level where it addresses the first steps citizens take toward activism: The local level. Where Ackerman and Fishkin seek to arrive at better representativeness, I am aiming for a greater democracy that arrives at the best decisions based on the broadest possible discussion; there are times when the representative solution is not the optimum solution to society’s needs, and it is in the negotiation that goes on over long periods of time, impossible in the context of a few days of citizen engagement, that those programs evolve.

To a great degree, the point of a national day of shared deliberation is the creation of an event that attracts and holds the press’ attention. The problem, however, is that the press is defined largely as a national institution when it is actually myriad local organizations that feed the national networks. It is more efficient and cheaper to attack this problem from the bottom, offering local news organizations something to write about. A networked local political process can be covered more efficiently than a national event and, more importantly, it answers local stations’ need for local news—a distributed process that presented national candidates to local constituencies and local issues to national candidates would produce much wider opportunities for engagement.

For it is engagement we need. Rather than forcing activists, politicians and political parties to adapt to “a more attentive and informed public,” these participants in the existing political system are hungry for a more involved public. It’s clearly visible in city council rooms, party organizing meetings and hearing rooms—citizens who want to be involved are welcomed to the process, but getting them into initial contact with that process at the local level is virtually impossible when the media focuses almost solely on the national races. The nation is not a sea of red states and blue states, where all citizens have voted Republican or Democrat, it is a densely interconnected web of communities of interest that sometimes vote together and other times separately. If you mapped it without the generalizations of state borders, it would be a red and blue checkerboard of counties voting for each party. Taken to the level of individual sentiment it would be a mass of purple, reflecting the proximity of Democrats and Republicans in real life. Add the other factors that describe voting habits, such as the role of independents, and the national map of “battle ground states” would be farcically kaleidoscopic; that kind of granularity isn’t good television, so we don’t see it today.

Despite the national story that grips the media and some of the nation every four years, finding a purchase in the politics of one’s own community is the most important first step to enduring involvement in discussion and debate that results in votes being cast and the more significant commitment of undertaking public service. The deliberative process must be smeared out over much smaller polities and a longer period of time than a single day to increase the breadth of opportunity for engagement.

Let’s begin with the money. As Ackerman and Fishkin acknowledge, a Deliberation Day based on payments to participating citizens will “add up to many billions each” election cycle. During 2000, campaign spending in the United States totaled approximately $3.9 billion; additional hundreds of millions were spent on the administration of elections, from registration of voters to buying and maintaining voting machines and counting and verifying votes. It’s probably safe to say that it costs $5.5 billion every two years to constitute our government.

In the Deliberation Day model, the cost of the one-day event, based on a $150 stipend for participants, would total $2.34 billion if 10 percent of the registered voters in the United States, 15.6 million people, participated in the holiday deliberation instead of staying in bed. If participation ever approached the relatively feeble 51.3 percent of registered voters who turned out to vote in 2000, the price tag for Deliberation Day would be $15.8 billion, three times the cost of campaigning for and electing all U.S. officials in 2000.

Since the point of Deliberation Day is to increase participation, the price tag could rise even higher. While the price is less than the price of half of the United States’ fleet of 21 advanced B-2 Stealth bombers, a successful Deliberation Day is so much higher than the cost of today’s election process that it would be impractical in almost any other nation. If democracy is to work, it needs to be based on a foundation that supports its practice without billions of dollars in expenses for each election cycle. Freedom cannot come only at the cash drawer of an automatic teller machine. And, if we can afford this kind of investment in the United States, it should be applied not only to national decision-making, but also at every other level of government in order to justify this kind of cost.

Networks are the answer to this quandary of needing more money for more democracy. Using the Internet, radio and local television, we can create a series of local events that give voice to the many concerns that rise toward the national level to produce the sweeping agendas of political parties and government.

National pre-primary conventions

Instead of a single day, I propose a semi-annual national primary system consisting of 50 consecutive publicly funded two-day conventions, with one or two days off between conventions, held in each state, leading up to a national primary day in which citizens, having participated in the evolving national debate, record their votes about the direction they want to nation to go. Recent examples of networked activism, especially the rise of the MeetUp gatherings among conservative and liberal groups, suggest that these events would be welcomed by voters who are eager to meet and talk with other citizens.
At the conclusion of each state pre-primary convention a deliberative poll would be conducted to report both the attitudes of the attendees to the conventions toward the candidates and issues, as well as to track the developing national story, giving the press and public an engaging horse race that can keep and hold the national attention.

The process would begin on February 15th of the election year and last until mid-July, when the whole country would hold a single national primary in which general election candidates would be selected and a list of “national priorities” are voted upon. This leaves plenty of time for the parties to hold their own nominating conventions, if they choose to, and for supporters to spend whatever they feel is necessary in order to satisfy their God-given, money-backed right to free speech. A debate and election about national priorities would provide a foundation for multi-partisan discussion and negotiation about specific policy rather than subsuming issues in a few candidates’ campaign messaging.

The 50 state conventions will be open to all registered voters in the state and preceded by an active organizing process by political parties, activist groups and candidates using open source and proprietary applications and networks to prepare to make their cases to the public. During presidential years, candidates will be able to attend these events at public expense and, instead of enduring a series of elections with only the funds they can raise, they will get their hearing across the entire nation before a single vote is cast.

The entire process would take less time than the current primary process and would allow many more candidates to participate in the primaries without having to raise millions of dollars. In Congressional election years, when early presidential candidates might take part in order to start building support, the focus of the conventions would be national issues and a deliberative debate over the platforms of the each party and the voters’ desire to see certain policy enacted. This would force a new approach to politics by parties, activists and political action committees, among others, because elections that are not anchored in the selection of one person, a president, by all the voters must be far more nuanced than the personality-driven campaigns we are used to today.

Because the people and press, not to mention the candidates themselves, need to have some sense of how candidates and issues is being received, each state convention will conclude with a poll conducted using the deliberative polling described by Ackerman and Fishkin. This will encourage a winnowing process, both on the part of campaigns, in that candidates may decide to discontinue their participation in the state conventions, and by the convention organizers, who may choose to focus on certain topics or candidates. Of course, the organization of the conventions themselves could be politicized and a statewide non-partisan group should set the convention agenda. However, it is clear that while people coming to the convention may have an issue that is important to them, the convention must be scheduled to address what are believed to be the most critical topics. This would encourage unique discussions in each state, as a state like Idaho might spend far more time on environmental and farming issues than Connecticut or New Jersey or California.

At each convention the national agenda would be represented by the candidates and parties, which would carry their experience from other states with them, adding new ideas and subtracting some as they proceed toward a platform that best represents the many communities they touch during the national pre-primary conventions. Moreover, the local coverage of each state convention would produce ample interstate debate among voters about issues that don’t necessarily become part of the national election. For instance, a group might gather after meeting during the convention to address local water supplies or electric utility price gouging, and it may be a group that consist of people from all political backgrounds. If these groups did not self-organize in advance of the convention, as activists brought people together to prepare for their statewide meeting, the evenings at the convention could be allocated to so-called “birds of a feather” groups who announce that they will meet about a topic and welcome all comers. Birds of a feather sessions have a popular way for technology and industry conferences that cannot anticipate everything attendees will want to talk about to offer open spaces for self-organizing groups. In this way, the convention becomes not an end, but a pivot point in the election cycle toward which organizing activity leads and from which newly minted advocacy groups emerge.

The power of activism

Where Ackerman and Fishkin suggest that citizens would respond to being compensated for their participation in a Deliberation Day meeting, I argue that there must be a reward for having become involved early in the process: Activism must be its own reward, yielding the power of support from others for one’s ideas or it does not justify the risk of becoming involved. The individual voter who takes the time before a pre-primary convention—even a year or more before the event—to begin to organize people to attend the convention in support of a particular candidate or cause is making an investment of time and energy that cannot be neutralized by compensating voters for attending the convention without preparation.

Activism is the path to political influence, just as entrepreneurialism is the path to above-average economic status. Activism cannot be separated from political social engineering, because it is the sole catalyst of real change, from the grassroots or within a party. Every major change is begun by people who strike out at their own risk; the pre-primary convention is a venue for that activism and if others, uninformed or inclined to read only the newspapers to find their political bearings, can appear to vote based on their interest in collecting a check, the risk of failure for the activist is increased artificially. Neither activism nor entrepreneurialism is guaranteed to succeed, but compared to today’s big-organization political and economic systems in which individuals are easily and casually tossed aside if the party or company doesn’t need them, the risk-reward ratio of striking out on one’s own—the independence it grants the person taking the risk—is more than sufficient to spur widespread recruitment of convention attendees.

“Sustained conversations do take place in countless settings, from the breakfast table to the coffee break at the office to the meeting at the neighborhood church or union hall. And their intensity and frequency do increase during election campaigns,” Ackerman and Fishkin write. “But the social context that motivates public deliberation is usually lacking, and the resulting levels of public information are disappointing.”

An activist who can promise voters that their discussions will have a significant impact on a well-attended and well-covered pre-primary convention is empowered politically to overcome the failure of social context in a nationalized mass media environment to sustain political action at the local level. The convention itself is the payoff, because there will be candidates there to listen, cameras and microphones recording the event and myriad Internet and physical advocacy groups ready to trade votes in support of complementary causes.

Furthermore, when real issues rise from the grassroots people do know the facts so that examples of political ignorance based on polls about fictional national laws, as the Washington Post found when it challenged voters to state an opinion on a fictive law and the positions of the two parties on that law, become increasingly rare or, at least, less relevant. You probably know more about your local government, how much it asks you for each month for schools, roads and so forth, than about any second-tier national law; and it with is these issues that people never need to refer to their party affiliation when expressing an opinion. Give the press something substantive to cover, even a revolt in school funding and management proposed by a small group of voters at a state pre-primary convention and they will report about that story instead of manufacturing stories about the absence of stories to cover or an ignorant citizenry.

Finding common cause

Information about other localities and what one’s locale has in common with them is an important point of entry in dialog. Social networking demonstrates that, having found something in common, the power of weak ties begins to knit far-flung groups into cohesive communities of interest. In the political realm, people in different communities are affected by the same kinds of laws and taxes, and they like to talk or complain about them. That’s the hook that can be used to open cross-community discussions, to begin the process of forging a national issue from local concerns.

Defense, energy policy and economic controls are relatively easy to make national in scope since they are most efficiently described and managed on a national level, but in a federal system the states take very different approaches to virtually all aspects of public management, public finance and public services. Some cities depend on bond issues for financing public projects while others emphasize levies, a pay-as-you-go approach to funding schools, roads and services like fire and emergency medical care. The city and country governments in different regions can have weak executives or strong, symbolic councils or representative ones. When all these different systems have operated on citizens’ lives, however, the results deal with exactly the same aspects of private life: Tax burdens; quality of public education; condition of roads; business conditions; employment safety and; quality of life. These many different approaches to public policy are reduced to laws and other governmental documents that, if analyzed and expressed in a format that can be processed by computers to find systems with common elements, citizens can use the resulting view of their world to identify and contact others who may be similarly affected by very different approaches to public policy. And they can talk.

Talk is about all you need to activate a network of weak ties. From the first hint of a common problem, like the bankrupting of schools or the lack of sufficient work and shelter for the unemployed, two citizens will be off to the races with their mutual concerns. They’ll bitch and moan or dissect the details of their local school funding together; the number of homeless people on their streets are mutually understood; together, they’ll begin to investigate what they have in common—they’ll talk and learn.

There was ample evidence that this is the case in several of the networked phenomena that marked the 2004 election cycle. Howard Dean’s campaign was ignited by an anti-war movement that was casting about for a direction after being ignored by the Bush Administration. Dean’s anti-war stance and his anybody-but-Bush approach to the campaign gave people all over the country and around the world a lightening rod candidate to support and talk about. On the conservative side of the political spectrum, Townhall.com marshaled conservatives’ concerns about “Bush haters” and a liberal bias in the press to launch a national network of physical and online discussion groups.

An important component of the pre-primary conventions, then, will be a robust database describing the demographic, political and policy characteristics of the states, counties and cities around the United States. This information exists in several places today, but is tightly controlled by, in the case of legal statutes, by corporate databases built on paid access, and in the case of demographic and voter information, the political parties.

Westlaw, owned by The Thomson Corp., a Connecticut-based information publisher, is a collection of more than 17,000 databases of statute federal and law and legal decisions in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Thomson, a $20 billion company, was built over many years and consists of many other database and business intelligence services in addition to Westlaw, so we can extrapolate that building a national policy database similar to the Westlaw collection would be well within the budget of a public project like the national networked primaries that takes place over years of elections. Considering that statute and case law are already publicly owned, the cost of accessing the initial collection should be relatively low—a few hundred million dollars to get everything together over a few years. Another significant amount of money should then be allocated to a public project to analyze the data and provide a consistent indexing and metadata schema so that the data becomes increasingly useful to the public. Westlaw is designed to cross-index laws and judicial decisions for lawyers’ use (a function that the company could expand and retain as a commercial venture while the public information works project develops), but citizens need very different views of the same data. Westlaw does not include financial information, all of which exists today in spreadsheets and government databases that are public property. So, for example, a public database might provide a way for citizens to search for “funding schools” to see a list of top-level descriptions of approaches to education funding, then drill down into each category to explore how other communities with similar size school districts are managing their finances. Ideally, the national policy database should be like a library or Web site where people turn when they want to know how others have dealt with similar problems. It should also be programmable to enable educators and policy advocates to access changing policy data to illustrate the impact of changes within communities when new policies are tried, whether they succeed or not, so that it provides a new type of visual accountability for citizens. For instance, a comparative budgeting tool that contrasted bond and levy-based educational funding with budgetary performance and, perhaps, educational results, should be the kind of project that this database ultimately supports.

After the issues, the next critical feature of a national system for local political dialogue is geographic and contextual linking of people based on their location and demographic characteristics. Much of this data is public information, as property values, tax records and voter registration are public in many states. Actual collection of this data, however, has been carried out by direct marketing companies and the major political parties. In 2004, the Democratic party launched “DataMart” while the Republicans rolled out “Voter Vault,” both online databases of all registered voters.

Now, it is certainly going to raise some hackles about personal privacy to suggest that this information be open and accessible for all. But the data is already available and is used only for a fee; why not make it available for public organizing efforts? There are ways to protect the data from commercial abuse, such as registration and user agreements, as well as constraining output to limit the size of the lists that can be generated. Assuming that the typical neighborhood activist needs only short lists to create small groups that will join coalitions to create larger movements, a limit on voter lists would likely work well as a simple barrier to abuse; as coalitions develop, they can assemble larger lists based on member opt-ins.

That the national policy database data and tools be open source, so that they can be modified and extended easily, is essential to the process. Not only should views of the data be customizable, annotations and commentary about laws and categories of policy should be conveniently appended to the data, so that the database becomes a foundation for long-term educational and partisan use. Just as DeanSpace developed layers of involvement and discussion around specific topics, the national policy should be both an information resource and a public platform for expanding discussion among public officials and citizens, political scientists and economists, as well as lawyers and accountants who provide professional services civic organizations.

An evolving dialogue

The process will not and cannot start out complete, but should evolve over time. The database and networking tools, like the Internet, are merely raw material that citizens can use to engage in politicking. Not everyone will use the database, especially at first, and many may never use it, but they will be touched by debates that rise out of and are backed by hard data in the system proposed above. Third-party views of the laws and case law in the database, of the bond and other financial reports, and virtually everything else, will be free to emerge on an open source foundation to facilitate organizing across the entire political spectrum. People will build tools that link laws and government finances to campaign donations tracked by the Federal Election Commission. Others will characterize states and localities for their friendliness or antipathy Christian values. It would be wild, crazed, and messy, like democracy is when it works best, but it will have the foundation of a publicly accessible reference source that can be checked from anywhere on the planet.

From the beginning, just as blogging and, before that, the proliferation of Web sites debating with and attacking one another has shown happens on the Internet, I expect that people will comment more often about another person’s or organization’s analysis of the data in the national policy database—in doing so, they will refer to the original data, to other information in the database or somewhere on the Internet, and even if someone distorts the facts they cite in political arguments, it will be good for democracy, since the database will provide a “final” reference point accessible to all. The lying liars of all political colors will have to live with the knowledge that any citizen can “fact-check their ass” and prove that the case they made was backed up by misstatements, falsehoods and lies. For the rest of us, it will be a source of information and a crucible for opinion-making that can develop from the raw materials of our legal system, political system and so forth.

What people vote on, too, will be open to change. Where today the process of placing a proposed law on the ballot is a tedious one that dissuades activists from calling for votes on many topics that cannot be codified into law, citizens will be able to use the pre-primary convention process to campaign for the calling of national questions, such as “Should the United States offer universal healthcare?” or “Should the United States offer religious schools direct financial support?” in order to put non-binding but significant questions to the public for use by legislators in their law-making. Since these questions are posed today by rhetoricians and ideologues, and answered with polling that suggests a scientific basis for believing the answers, the public should be able to settle some of these questions itself—it would save the nation a lot of time spent on speculating about those issues today. Since the questions would be non-binding, merely advisory, they would be available to legislators when lobbying for legislation and for activists to use in arguing for their pet causes.

Likewise, a divorce between candidates and issues, so that the public can have a separate discussion about the issues about which it is collectively concerned or unconcerned, would prevent the erection of political red herrings and shibboleths, like gay marriage and late-term abortion at the beginning of election years that are purposively divisive and designed to make candidates’ whole platforms less relevant in media coverage and public debate. A candidate would be free to pursue those issues, but the public would have its own forum to counter these “topic of the day” controversies and set its own agenda for the candidates. If the public were having a serious debate about fiscal responsibility and domestic economics in its own fora, it is unlikely that a candidate would persist in repeating ad nauseum some ridiculous charge about his or her opponent’s godlessness or illiberality or whatever charge largely irrelevant to a candidate’s ability to govern. The media would have an alternative story to tell, one defined by the public, about which the public can express its concerns not once, but in 50 different flavors as the pre-primary conventions played out.

For a change, instead of having candidates personify issues, the pre-primary conventions’ ability to rally activists around specific policy questions and issues would force candidates to sign onto the platform favored by the public. This, alone, would be a transformative phenomenon in modern politics, reversing the flow of debate from the top down with a bottom-up policy-making process.

As the pre-primary conventions play out each election year, the deliberative polls conducted at the end of each state event would be useful barometers of the success or failure of candidates, allowing them to decide to drop out of the national primary or to shift their campaigns to emphasize specific issues that they feel need to be represented in the general election instead of simply pursuing an office and giving up when the money runs out. Activists in different states could use rising interest in a candidate or an issue to catalyze interstate fund-raising and campaigning, preserving the most important quality of the current primary system, the ability for a dark horse to emerge out of the pack and leap to national prominence despite the pronouncements of political professionals and pundits

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.