Tech that promotes civic engagement

Following the 2016 presidential election, many voters are looking for ways to stay engaged in the political discourse and some startups are leveraging data and technology to help. Maria Yuan is the founder of one such endeavor, an online platform called “Issue Voter.” She joins us today to discuss the role of technology in fostering civic engagement.

TRANSCRIPT

Following the 2016 presidential election, many voters are looking for ways to stay engaged in the political discourse.

And some start-ups are leveraging data and technology to help.

Maria Yuan is the CEO and founder of one such endeavor, an online platform called IssueVoter.

She joins us today to discuss the role of technology in fostering civic engagement.

So, what is IssueVoter?

IssueVoter is a site that lets you get alerts when your congressperson is about to vote on a bill related to an issue that you care about.

And we summarize the bills, offer what the proponents and opponents are saying, along with related news, and then one click sends your opinion to your elected official's staffer.

And you have a profile on the site that tracks throughout the year how often your congressperson is voting how you would want them to vote on issues you care about.

So this is kind of like one of those little cheat-sheet guides that you take into the polling booth that maybe your local paper said, you know, if you're a progressive or if you're a conservative, this is where you should be on these issues and so forth, right?

Similar. It's nice because you can keep all of your issues in one place as opposed to looking at several different organizations and their scorecards and trying to somehow triangulate that.

So it becomes a really personalized guide because it's literally the bills that you've actually sent your opinion on.

And then you can see what that outcome was.

So, when Congress votes, you would get a notification that shows you, 'This is what you voted.

This is what your rep voted.

And here's whether or not the bill passed.'

This is the modern-day version of the phone-call or the letter-writing campaign.

Exactly.

Yeah. So how does this technology improve that experience, right?

So, does the member of Congress... Are they more or less likely to be aware of how citizens in their constituencies, in their neighborhoods, in their backyards, are actually thinking about these issues?

I think that the nice thing about technology is it enables a lot more people to be heard.

So, a staffer can only take so many phone calls in an hour or in a day, and this is a way for more people to participate.

So, our mission is to give everyone a voice in our democracy, you know, by making civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful.

I would say that by sending it electronically, there is still some resistance, depending on the rep, to be honest.

I think some reps and some really advocacy organizations oftentimes encourage people to make phone calls.

But I think eventually we have to -- we are going to move beyond that.

For example, you know, when you order your food online or by going to the restaurant and picking it up or eating at the restaurant or picking up the phone, like, no matter what way I order my food, I still want it to taste good.

And so I think, more and more, reps are realizing, no matter what medium you use to communicate, it doesn't mean that your opinion matters more or less.

What is kind of the back-end gain?

I mean, you said 'impactful.'

So, how do you make sure that this is action oriented, right, that people don't just study the issue, but they're telling their reps?

Right. Well, we make it really easy to do that.

So we give people alerts that there's even something to tell their rep about in the first place.

And then it is literally one click to send the opinion.

So that is the action that we want people to take.

And so far, we've sent over 20,000 opinions to Congress and in just a short matter of time.

And so we've also had a lot of staffers reach out to us to get connected with their constituents and ask about, you know, IssueVoter.

Is there a benefit to having that data of when somebody's opinion is a certain way about something?

So, are they going to be targets?

If I say that I am pro- or anti- gun control or choice or whatever it is, am I going to get targeted by different ads saying, 'Hey, you should change your mind,' or, 'You should think about this,' or... How do you work in that arena?

So, we're not selling the data right now.

Great.

And what, um... I would say that, you know, from the reps' point of view, they do have staffers whose job is to count every constituent contact.

So when you say impactful, that's the main impact that we're trying to have right now, as opposed to, for example, a petition.

So we see a lot of petitions, The problem with petitions is that to an elected official, it's merely a list of names.

And often, petitions for political causes don't actually work, and there's a number of reasons for that, but I think that the biggest thing that we can do is send the opinion directly to that person's rep, who's actually elected to represent them.

As far as how the data is being used, it's something we're still working through.

So we're relatively new.

We launched the day after the election, so it's been a little bit over a month.

So what do you need to do to get to scale?

Technically speaking, there are already phone lines everywhere in the country, and people know how to put something in the mail and reach their rep.

But what's the critical mass that you need to hit when all of a sudden, members of Congress say, 'You know what?

This is another medium where people are going to reach out and tell me how they think about things'?

Yep. So, I've spoken with former congresspeople and current staffers.

And generally, kind of to triangulate the different responses and conversations, they say anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people, it becomes interesting.

Okay.

So it's not necessarily millions and millions because, unfortunately, less than 5% of constituents are actually reaching out to their reps currently.

So, are you hoping to change that by making it easier?

Definitely. Yeah.

That's definitely our goal.

One of the things that people forget about this election is how few people actually went to the polls.

Less than half the population or so actually used the rights that they have.

So, how does technology change that?

And if you can get people engaged now through the midterms, maybe an increase in people that actually turn out?

Yeah, exactly.

I mean, I think by seeing these alerts throughout the year, it will help people realize the work that's actually being done and the importance of voting.

All right. Maria --

Because you hear about a couple of issues in the news, but we don't necessarily see the hundreds of bills that are being voted on every year.

Maria Yuan, IssueVoter.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.