If the voting process is easier, maybe more people will vote. If the public is more inspired about the electoral process, maybe more of us will participate. If more information about politicians is disclosed, maybe more of the public will be better informed. If the campaign speeches of candidates are archived better online, maybe more voters will watch them or learn from analyses that compare public statements. If journalists and technologists build better tools to examine election data, maybe the public will use them, benefitting American society.
That's a lot of "maybes" to be answered in the face of rampant voter apathy and cynicism. If you believe that the answers might be "yes," though, the 22 winners of the Knight Foundation's News Challenge on Elections will give you hope. In one way or another, they have all committed to answer, inspire, engage and inform voters.
The long-running contest to build tools that improve the ability of citizens to access information and participate in American democracy introduced its newest class of winners at an event in Austin, Texas, today.
"We see access to quality information as a public good," wrote John Bracken, vice president for media innovation and Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism, on the Knight Foundation's blog:
[W]e have consistently seen growing disinterest in elections, especially at the local level. That’s why earlier this year we decided to make elections the theme of this current News Challenge, posing the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections?
"As we reviewed applications, we identified two primary themes in the winning entries," wrote Bracken and Preston, "projects that provide news and information about candidates and issues, and ideas designed to increase voter engagement. The winning projects are a mix of news organizations, nonprofits focused on transparency, civic tech startups—and a state government. Several of the projects are collaborations across organizations and sectors."
The winners included several projects boasting remarkably strong teams and industry heavyweights as affiliates.
For instance, the California Civic Data Coalition, a partnership between The Los Angeles Times, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Stanford University, is already operating a tool that enables the public, academic researchers and journalists to mine campaign finance data. In an era where unprecedented amounts of dark money are flowing in elections, funding resources for reporters (and financially strapped parent media companies) is a terrific idea.
Similarly, Inside the 990 Treasure Trove, a project at the Center for Responsive Politics in partnership with the nonprofit tracker GuideStar, could help reveal nonprofit tax return data among the sources of campaign donations. If the IRS finally starts releasing Form 990 tax returns as machine-readable data next year, adding transparency to the $16 trillion dollar nonprofit sector, this tool could become incredibly useful.
On the civic engagement side, Informed Voting From Start to Finish combines local voter guides from E.thePeople with TurboVote, which aims to make the digital voter registration process easy and seamless. Vote-by-Smartphone isn't quite what it promises -- which is a good thing, given the issues that persist with electronic voting. The project enables a registered voter to request an absentee ballot with a mobile device.
All of this year's winners face the challenge of turning the tide on historic lows in voter participation in the United States. If the tools of civic engagement bring interested bystanders into the electoral process, there's (almost) no place to go but up after 2014's turnout.
The next News Challenge, which opens in September, will focus on data. Hopefully, the Knight Foundation will evaluate how well the 2012 winners put data to work and either double down or invest differently: the News Challenge has invested more than $50 million dollars over the past eight years, with mixed results. Few of the 150 projects funded have gone on to be frequently used, much less wildly popular. Some of the reasons, according to a 2014 report from the foundation, were inability of a product's user base to pay for it, lack of attention to a product's user interface and cultural or industry resistance towards new tools.
For a full list of the winners of the election challenge, read the coverage at the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, which includes interviews with some of this year's winners.