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Andrea Chalupa Headshot

Visible Vote: Easy Civic Engagement, Y'all!

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During the battle royale for health care that gained us a mighty inch, I had my House representative and U.S. senators on speed dial. Running errands, walking to work, I could make a quick call and tell a friendly receptionist, "Yo, tell her/him I support the public option. I'm a constituent!" It was easy, and once sent me into a fantasy about organizing my friends every two weeks to get together to make phone calls or knock on doors for causes we believe in. Then I imagined someone bringing a bottle of wine, and then True Blood would be on, and someone would bring an Australian backpacker she's dating, and the night would end in minimal civic engagement.

There must be an easier way to flex our democracy on a regular basis, as often as we actually change our sheets and as easy and enticing as checking a RSS feed. And there is, and if it's successful it can join the "popular vote" in really sticking it to the electoral college.

Let's all give a hand to -- the most exciting thing, and there's a close second, featured at the Personal Democracy Forum this year. This is a great way for the couch potato demographic, and I put myself in that category, to monitor representatives and let them know how we, as voters, stand on the issues.

This free voting app -- available for Facebook, the iPhone, Blackberry, and the usual suspects -- briefly summarizes bills in Congress, saved under recognizable names, not obscure bill numbers, and lets you know their status, vote on them and leave comments. The votes are tallied and, along with the comments, faxed to members of Congress. Why fax?

"Faxing was necessary since no member of Congress provided us their direct email address. We send one fax a week with these vote tallies to each member," wrote Jenny Weigle, a spokesperson for Visible Vote, in an email. "Individuals in our program have sent 75,507 personal faxes through Visible Vote to date. The typical length of the faxes is about 8 pages with the vote tallies."

(The runner-up headline to this post: Keep on faxing in the free world).

Visible Vote also provides metrics comparing your voting record to how your representatives voted. If you get alerts on your credit card and bank statements, why not keep an eye on elected public officials, see if they're working for the things you need and believe in? This app feature reminds me of the Pericles quote, "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

Reading through the bill summaries can be as fun as watching the Discovery Channel. Did you know that there's a bill -- Fair Tax 2009 -- to repeal major taxes except for sales tax? The comments on its Visible Vote site go on for ten pages. One can't help but join the discussion and ponder an issue that's not necessarily core to one's political interest. So my thoughts on this, if I may: This bill can only pass if we legalize and tax marijuana to make up for the lost state revenue. Bam! Just a little red state/blue state tit for tat. But see, Visible Vote boosts our exposure to the process and potential of Congress, and offers us an easy civic action: click yes or no, and then opt-in or out to have your vote displayed on your Facebook page.

After officially launching in January 2010, Visible Vote now has over 150,000 users, according to the site's Facebook page. Developed by Paul Everton, Frank Robles, and Steven Trac, the latter two computer scientists who used to work for NASA, Visible Votes relies on the same security measures as the sites of Fortune 100 companies and collects unbiased information on bills from credible news sources and from Thomas, the federal legislation research site by the Library of Congress, and provides links to the actual bills. A third party verifies user info to prevent bogus accounts from stuffing the cyber ballot box, but my feeling is, especially when it comes to election cycles, oversight needs to be ramped up for the Roves out there and their ilk.

Though I like how Visible Vote is building a neutral, comprehensive, easy-to-use platform, it's got to break into the majors, as Fast Company's Addy Dugdale points out:

There are rich pickings to be had in social media for politicians -- and, it has to be said, rich pickings in politics for the social media firms. Witness Facebook, which has been flexing its political muscle recently, recruiting Timothy Muris as its Washington lobbyist and upping its political content pages. Google's political lobbying habit is well established. And now Twitter's posted a job search for a Government Liaison, who can help pols use the platform more effectively.

When it comes to casting a message-sending vote online, I prefer using a site solely dedicated to the democratic process, a site that's safe from hackers and Katherine Harris, that reminds our Congress who's working for who, and more importantly, reminds us of the same thing year-round, not just on election day.

For more on Visible Vote, has a breakdown of its infographics, polling and other site features.