Let’s face it, the US political system is a little shoddy. Shady, even. Especially when it comes to electing presidents. Really, when it comes down to it, the Presidential elections turn into pissing contests between only two nominees that may or may not have been chosen by their constituents to represent their party and who are elected to lead our country by some shadowy, not-well-understood group who may or may not follow the will of the people and elect the rightful winner of the popular vote. It can, at times, honestly seem like these elections aren’t about the weighing of the pros and cons of individual candidates but are instead a forced choice to put in charge the lesser of the two evils the nebulous entities known as the Republican and Democratic Parties have foisted onto us through the magic of politics.
Unsurprisingly, the citizenry is getting a little sick of all of this politicking and out of this zietigiest Americans Elect was born. They say they’re a new way to do politics. Vote for a canidate not a party is their battle cry, but is this organization really that revolutionary? Are they really shaking up the political scene as much as they claim to be or is it the same ol’ same ol’ just under different management?
Judging from that ad alone, it definitely seems to be the later. If Americans Elect was really trying to change the way we do politics, they might’ve thought to show some women as potential candidates in the ad.
Right now, politics as usual means straight, white men debating and legislating what they think is best for the rest of us. From career politicians to talking heads in the media to lobbyists making backroom deals, the political realm is overwhelmingly dominated by this one particular demographic, even though it’s not remotely representative of our actual citizenry. There certainly have been exceptions such as the recent election of Barack Obama as the first black president and the advent of Sarah Palin and her ‘mama grizzly’ faux-feminist politican trend, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. So surely Americans Elect, being the new way to do politics, would rectify this problem that is endemic in our political system? It doesn’t really seem like it will. If you take a look at their candidates page, where voters can track politicians that they most agree with on the issues, a very politics as usual picture emerges: of the top 10 candidates none are women and only one (Obama) is non-white. This same pattern is also evident on their debates page. Of the 25 highest rated debate questions only one seems to have been proposed by a woman.
Now, before I get dozens of angry missives from the politi-commentariat, I realize that both the candidates and debates results were formed by user input on the site (in this case, the voters themselves) and is not some nefarious plot on the part of Americans Elect. However, there are some fairly obvious flaws in the site’s design that I think inevitably led to the politics as usual being replicated despite all the hoopla about shiny, fancy “YOU choose the topics important to you”, “YOU choose which questions get asked” sloganeering.
The most glaring issue, and most influential, is that there is a complete dearth of search options on both the debates and candidates page. You can choose what issues are important to you all you want, but finding the debates that are within the same category as your issue, let alone those dealing specifically with it, is nigh on impossible. The only way to browse the debate questions is to go through the backlog of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of questions a handful at a time, or to look at the leaderboard and highest rated questions. Searching for candidates is just as difficult as you can only browse through a listing of the most tracked or through an alphabetical listing of every candidate profiled. That’s almost 700 potential candidates pulled from all walks of political life. A voter interested in seeking out debates centered around a specific issue or researching candidates who focus on that issue would have to be exceedingly dedicated to rifle through Americans Elect’s huge dataload to find what they’re looking for. And even then, their effort would have been spent for almost naught because the existence of the highest rated and most tracked listings as the only other search functions serve to funnel voter attention into the already popular issues and candidates.
Think about it: A new voter comes to Americans Elect ready to be a good little citizen and do the research and shape the debate and pick candidates that they can finally truly believe in. They look at the debate page and see that the first 5 pages of questions barely even touch on the topic they want answered by their potential president. They could ask their question and see it get swept away to the purgatory of page 8 within mere minutes or hours. They could slowly search through the thousands of questions to find a handful of other similarl proposed questions and upvote them, but those questions are still lost to the masses. The new voter pretty quickly grasps that the only questions that really matter, that have any chance of being seen, and thus used, are the ones on the first page or two of the highest rated listing. So they upvote or downvote those questions as suits them and go off to the candidates page where a similar predicament awaits them. Should they search through the hundred of candidates, meticulously researching them one by one? Or should they go for the politicians that come to mind easily and haphazardly search for them in the hard to navigate alphabetical listing? Or, after spending quite a bit of time on this site already, just go to the most tracked listing again and go for one of the top candidates there. After all, what other candidates have a hope of competing with the top 5 and their thousands of trackings.
It’s a nasty feedback loop, and one that could have been easily avoided with better search functions being available at the start (it’s most likely too late at this point). Americans Elect should have allowed people to search debates for keywords, by category, and by top rated within a category. Candidates should have been searchable by area of focus, political affiliation, what public offices they’ve held, etc. (And for sanity’s sake put some damn hyper links for each letter of the alphabet! Come on that’s seriously big-ass-alphabetical-list-101!). The popular issues would still have been the popular issues, but the less popular ones wouldn’t have dissapeared entirely from the leaderboards and from the first published list of platform questions.
The negative effects of these design decisions and the resultant feedback loop, though, go far beyond just making it hard to find the less popular issues. In fact, I think it’s why fewer women are participating in Americans Elect and why the conversations within it are being dominated by men (as heralded by the debates leaderboards), as well as explaining why so few female politicians and racial minorities made it into the top tiers of the the most tracked candidates.
It’s extremely telling that two of the issue categories that weren’t popular enough to make the cut to be included on the first list of platform questions were Social Issues and Immigration. These two categories cover a lot of what is considered to be the identity politics territory: DOMA, marriage equality, laws affecting undocumented immigrants, women’s rights, reproductive rights, civil rights, etc. It was most assuredly ingrained cultural sexism, rasicsm, and bigotry in the Americans Elect users that got this ball rolling, but it was the poor site design that sealed the deal and caused them to dissappear. Cultural narratives saying that theses issues are unimportant and irrelevant in the face of other ‘more pressing’ issues such as the economy or the wars allowed debate questions focusing on minority rights issues to be ridiculed, trolled, down voted, and ignored, ultimately banishing them from the good graces of the leaderboards and starting the feedback loop that kept those issues from getting any significant activity. This created the eventuality that when someone interested in social justice came to the site to scout out this new way of doing politics they’d see that not only where their interests and rights not represented, they were entirely unwelcomed in the larger debates. From there it’s no wonder that minority participation was edged out and that the voters that remained chose to track the politicians most familiar and similar to them: straight, white men.
Americans Elect set out to create an alternative voting process that gave US citizens a greater voice in their elections and more control over those who govern them. But by not taking the time to refine their site design, they allowed bigotry a foothold in which to fester to the point where the site became just as exclusionary as the real world political process they claimed to want to change. With the primary season underway, its probably too late for Americans Elect 2012 to try to correct the problem, but the lessons learned from it are too important not to take into account in future elections: if we want to change the political process for the better we can’t go about it haphazardly because the bigotry and divisiveness that make elections the quagmire they currently are will seep in if given half a chance.