July | August 2017

by Courtney Daniel
Technology has changed everything.
Technology, such as smartphones and social media platforms, is playing an increasingly significant role in how citizens receive information. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of Americans use some type of social media. That’s up from just 5 percent in 2005.
“My constituents like the instant access that social media provides to connect directly with their legislator,” Tennessee state Rep. Raumesh Akbari said. “Social media is evolving and moving and the interactions are organic.”
Akbari represents Tennessee’s 91st district, which encompasses part of Shelby County, the state’s largest county by population and geographic area. According to her, only 1 percent of 18 to 24-year-old’s in her district vote, and that’s a problem.
“That demographic is so hard to reach and get them to vote and be participants in the legislative process,” Akbari said. “The legislature can seem so big, but social media makes what we do more accessible.”
Social media is presenting itself—at least in part—as a solution to this hurdle of accessibility. Eighty-six percent of people 18 to 24 use at least one social media site, and according to a Pew Research Center report, Civic Engagement in the Digital Age, social media involvement frequently spills over into other online and offline spaces.
“It is so important for people—young people specifically—to be involved not only at the national level, but also in state and local governments,” Akbari said. “Those are the governing bodies that actually have the most influence on your daily life.”
And it’s not just young people who are flocking to the internet. Sixty-four percent of people 50–64 years of age use at least one social media site. Akbari said she uses technology in a variety of ways to reach different demographics, including livestreaming from the House floor, asking for ideas about legislation through email and sharing updates on social media about accomplishments during the legislative session.
Akbari has also used social media as a tool to gain support for legislation and bring her constituents into the legislative process.
“I worked on a bill to ban suspensions of pre-kindergartners and kindergartners,” Akbari said. “I was able to get feedback from teachers and educators on Facebook, [and] workshop a bill and garner support for it right on Facebook.”
Americans who take part in political activities on social networking sites also tend to be highly active in other areas of political or civic life. According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of people who engage in political activity on social media have sent an email to a government official or signed an online petition. The national average is 34 percent. Fifty-three percent of those who use social media to engage politically have expressed their opinion about a political or social issue by sending a letter to a government official or signing a paper petition. The national average is 39 percent.
But social media is still just one tool with which to engage voters. Akbari doesn’t only sit behind a desk and write online posts; she continues to engage in person with her community.
“We are planning a series of town halls, and social media will help us reach people who won’t actually be able to be there,” Akbari said. “We’re going to livestream the town halls and accept questions online and allow people to give us feedback.”
Akbari said social media doesn’t have to be polarizing, it can be a source of information and a way to bring more people into the legislative process.
Social media isn’t the only online resource that’s increased civic engagement. Platforms such as icitizen are working to connect constituents to their elected officials and organizations. Bruce Starr, vice president of government relations at icitizen, said the platform provides elected officials with quantitative feedback on policy initiatives and new ideas so they are armed with hard data to back up their decisions.
“Citizens feel satisfied and part of the political process [by] making their voices heard voting in polls, and electeds use that insight to inform their campaigns or policies, while also showing their district they are listening to and engaged with constituents,” Starr said.
On icitizen’s website, users vote in polls about trending issues, and elected officials can gauge public opinion to inform decisions and test new ideas. It’s also a place to access nonpartisan news and track trending polls and issues within communities. This platform works on national, state and local projects.
“We’ve helped numerous elected officials and organizations,” Starr said. “While they might not have had the budget to incorporate a ‘luxury’ item like public opinion polling in the past, we’ve helped lower that barrier and make it more accessible.”
Starr said icitizen has had more than 135,000 users since last year, with the number continuing to grow.
“We’re seeing more people actively voting in our polls and weighing in on national news, policy issues and surveys from their representatives. This shows that people are eager to connect with their representatives and get involved in the political process. We just need to make it easy for them to do so,” Starr said.
Pew’s Voting information Project, or VIP, also aims to increase civic engagement. VIP provides voters with information about where to vote and what’s on their ballots, ensuring all eligible Americans have the information they need before they cast a ballot.
“Voters need to know where to vote, and what will be on their ballot,” said Alexis Schuler, senior director for Pew Charitable Trusts. “Historically, that specific information has been difficult to find online. Since 2009, we have been delivering actionable information online about where to cast a ballot, on or before Election Day.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2008 report, Being Online is Not Enough, revealed that a standardized, reliable online source for voters to obtain basic Election Day information did not exist, even though millions search online for such answers. VIP was created as a joint effort of state and local officials, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Google to bring official voting information to voters via the internet.
In order for search engines, social media websites, online retailers and others to share relevant voting information, they need an aggregated source that stretches across jurisdictions. That’s where VIP comes in. VIP received official voting information from 44 state election offices and the District of Columbia, and saw more than 123 million impressions of VIP information during the 2016 election cycle. That’s compared to 31 million in the 2014 election cycle.
“Voters are used to doing everything online, and finding out where to vote and what’s on their ballot is becoming routine,” Schuler said.
VIP is often much easier to use than sometimes cumbersome government websites. Users enter an address on VIP, and voting information for that address pops up. Additionally, VIP’s information has powered lookup tools across a multitude of platforms.
“If you looked up where to vote through a Google search, or reacted to a Facebook push notification, or found a prompt in your Twitter feed, you used information provided by VIP. If you checked a forecast on Weather Underground, ordered dinner delivery from DoorDash, or shopped on Etsy, you came across links to VIP’s voting information in each of these places,” Schuler said. “Our goal in 2016 was to give voters the opportunity to find accurate, official voting information during their regular, daily online activities.”
Countless other organizations, like Code for America, a network of people who have worked with thousands of tech industry professionals to help local governments better serve their communities, and Change.org, an online petition platform that has been used by more than 100 million people in 196 countries, are working to engage more citizens in the legislative process.
Town halls and traditional media still have a place within the civic arena, but increasingly organizations, leaders and decision makers are meeting the people where there are—online.