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Digitizing Democracy: Shifting Power to the People

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It's common knowledge that getting people to the polls during political primaries in America has become something of a fool's errand, so headlines like "Major spending on elections met with total apathy by voters" and "Americans hate Congress. They will totally teach it a lesson by not voting" aren't surprising.

The numbers supporting such assertions -- in this case, research conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate -- paint a bleak picture of the current political climate in the United States. As of last month, turnout in 15 of the 25 states that held statewide primaries dipped to historic lows and turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries combined was 54 percent lower than age-eligible citizens voting in 1966. More of the same was predicted for primaries during the last few weeks with officials expecting around 25 percent turnout in Connecticut and 15 percent in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Alaska and Wyoming officials reported slightly higher numbers for their primaries last week with 31.5 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

To pile on, the Pew Research Center's forecast for November is equally discouraging. Pew's polling found that 45 percent of voters are less enthusiastic about voting this fall than in previous midterm elections. This percentage is as high as it has been since 1998 (the midterm elections held during President Bill Clinton's second term on the heels of his tryst with Monica Lewinsky). Against this landscape of voter apathy and dissolution, you might assume that the system is fundamentally broken; that at its most basic level, the great experiment Alexis de Tocqueville once spoke of simply can't scale in a country that has grown to more than 500,000 elected officials and 180 million registered voters.

But the reality is that voters today remain deeply invested in issues; they are aware of and care about not only large national topics -- like immigration, minimum wage and climate change -- but also a host of matters closer to home. And this is represented in how they vote: according to the same Pew study, 34 percent of voters say national issues will make the biggest difference in their vote for Congress but 28 percent additionally name local and state issues as a priority.

So if voters care about myriad issues, and see elections as an effective forum in which they can act upon those issues, why have they stopped racing to the ballot box? Why, taken as a whole, are people opting out of the system that is designed to serve them?

I believe the answer is technology, or more specifically, the failure of technology to improve the democratic process. We live in an age when technology has pushed us to expect more from, and be pleasantly surprised by, every other aspect of our lives -- how we socialize, how we work, how we consume news and content, how we travel, how we eat and how we shop. We live in an age of constant surprise and delight and yet, as our expectations in these arenas continue to soar, we constantly expect less from and are disappointed by the democratic process and those we elect to represent us.

Almost every other aspect of our lives has become more social, more transparent, more simple and, ultimately, more gratifying. Democracy has become none of these. At a time when our personal and professional lives have become a largely social and shared experience, why do we vote alone, skip town hall meetings, cancel memberships to community organizations and talk less about politics with those around us? Why have sites like KAYAK transformed the travel industry by making pricing and scheduling totally transparent, but campaign finance complexity makes it next to impossible to know which corporations are funding which politicians? And even though technology has reduced shopping for any good anywhere at anytime to the click of a single button (literally, thanks to Amazon), it has done nothing to help the millions of unregistered voters who need to line up for hours and wade through horribly opaque identification laws to even get on the voter rolls.

What this all boils down to is power (which is probably unsurprising, given we are talking about politics). Technology is making people feel increasingly powerful, capable of satisfying their needs, wants and whims from their tiny pocket computers, but politics is making us feel increasingly disempowered --disenfranchised, alone, confused and disappointed. Perhaps the right question isn't why are 75 percent of an electorate not voting; it's why are 25 percent of people bothering to vote?

But it's not all doom and gloom. If technology teaches us one thing, it is how quickly entire industries, entrenched behaviors and power centers can topple. Less than four years ago neither Uber nor Snapchat existed, and now they have become verbs. Solid progress has already been made by organizations like POPVOX, Code for America, the Sunlight Foundation and others, and I think new mobile technologies, networked approaches and connected communities can build on that momentum, and do for democracy what has been done elsewhere. In the not so distant future, citizens will not only see that others share their passions, but will see how together they can make a difference and continue the great experiment that is democracy.