Independent state Senate candidate Jeremy Hansen, running in Washington County, today demonstrated a sophisticated beta website where voters can comment, weigh pros and cons, and direct Hansen’s potential Statehouse vote.
Hansen pledges, if elected, to make policy decisions solely based on his constituents’ online input. He says he will state his own opinion on matters, but will otherwise vote according to the information gathered by this interactive platform.
“People need to have a louder voice in a more direct way,” said Hansen, currently an assistant computer science professor at Norwich University. “We have the technologies to do this. Why not make it work?”
Hansen was quick, however, to point out the limitations of the technology. “The difficulty is convincing people that this could work,” Hansen said. “I’m the first person to say it’s possible that it might not work, though I’m of the opinion that this is a powerful tool for people to ensure that their legislators are actually representative.”
If results show that voters are undecided or conflicted on a specific issue, on an issue like protecting Berlin Pond, Hansen said he’d likely vote according to his own views, or possibly abstain.
Hansen wasn’t sure whether this sort of “statistical dead heat” would happen often.
The platform itself, which Hansen unveiled via a lunchtime webinar, is being pitched to other political candidates and elected officials nationwide, with some interest from candidates in Vermont, Atlanta and Massachusetts, as a tool they could use come 2014 or sooner.
Some are dubious about whether the platform actually represents an interesting or viable development.
“I doubt his website will engage many people, especially those who do not now participate much in the political process,” said Wally Roberts, executive director of nonprofit Common Cause Vermont. Roberts pointed out that enticing even 50 percent of registered voters to a non-presidential election is difficult, and argued that only political, news and computer “junkies” would engage with the website.
Roberts also remarked that basing legislative action mainly on website votes allows special interests to organize a large online bloc vote, to push a partisan agenda.
State Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, an incumbent in one of the seats Hansen hopes to capture, said the website was a smart idea, but that it’s sometimes difficult to get in touch with constituents.
“I’m sure there’d be much interest,” said Doyle, who noted that many candidates may not be as tech-savvy as Hansen. “I think he’s consistent with the information age.”
Doyle suggested the website could be a supplement to rather than a replacement of his annual Town Meeting Day survey.
Hansen said he’s been pondering this idea for about a year now. He developed the concept with Florida congressional candidate Philip Dodds and computer scientist Dr. Travis Kriplean.
The experiment is also in keeping with recent direct democracy experiments across the nation, like the introduction of participatory budgeting in New York City last year, where community members directly establish government budget items.
Hansen says that so far feedback about the experiment has been positive, but a telling post on his campaign’s Facebook page indicates otherwise.
Irvin Eisenberg today wrote: “The only problem people seem to have with it is that it doesn’t reflect the voice of those who don’t use the computer.”
While Hansen has a ready response for this criticism, he said his platform for “direct representation” is somewhat idealistic, given the realities of Statehouse politics. He hasn’t yet heard from traditional Vermont party leaders about his website or campaign.