Breaking Financial Barriers — Reimagining Elections
U.S. Politics are systemically flawed due to the amount of capital needed to run for public office.
The first OurSociety experiment is a free platform for candidates running for office that empowers individuals from all economic classes to have a voice. While other campaign platforms exist, they are private, for-profit firms that focus on helping candidates raise funding. At OurSociety we believe that there is a better way. A not-for-profit campaign platform that is focused on content and issues while still being free to use by any registered candidate running for office. Our platform gives candidates the ability to post as much as information as they would like in both written and video format detailing their policies, plans, and vision for the future. Also, they can take advantage of our Societal Value Matching to align with citizen users who may not have the time to review their mandates in detail.
Candidates and citizens are connected based on location about the specific election. So, for example, in our New Jersey beta, the 2018 congressional elections will show users of the platform their candidate options and matches based on the Senate and Congressional districts they live in. Also, the city of Newark has a Mayoral election, so residents of Newark would also see mayoral candidates using the OurSociety platform.
To help us understand why a free and open election platform is needed in the U.S. lets take a moment to put our electoral process into perspective. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States trails the majority of developed countries in regards to voter turnout. There are some reasons why this may be, and that topic in itself would be a separate post. Accepting the research details allows us to explore how other highly developed western democracies are running their elections. For example, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Japan all have strict restrictions on the amount of money that can be spent on a political campaign as well as the amount and types of advertising allowed for candidates.  Also countries such as Israel provide free transportation for individuals who are in need, so they vote as well as in-depth financial reviews of any candidates running a campaign. These regulations and services influence the style of campaign that may and empower citizens to participate in their elections. These regulations and services are good for democracy.
In the U.S. our lawmakers have moved in the opposite direction by choosing not to address the Citizens United ruling. To clarify we’re referring to Citizens United as the Supreme Court Decision declaring that government restriction on political spending by corporations and unions was unconstitutional. This is important because it means those with access to large amounts of capital can spend unlimited amounts towards the support of political candidates or policies. The decision overturned century-old precedent allowing the government to regulate such spending. As you can imagine spending has increased exponentially since the ruling, reaching into the billions in 2016.
The problem the United States faces is not a lack of options, but rather the lack of political willpower to make the legislative changes to end the dominance and influence of corporations and a select few wealthy elites on our political process. Unfortunately, individuals involved in the U.S. lawmaking process have chosen to put their professional and personal finances above the greater good. If we desire to create a more open and transparent government, then we need to consider alternatives in how we choose to participate in our electoral process. OurSociety’s election platform is one method to supersede the current thought regime by creating a way to rapidly elect candidates who align with our shared values of better government free of the corrupting influence of corporate and private mega-donations.
One of the core purposes of OurSociety is to create a radical engagement in our democratic process. It’s a big goal so it requires reimagining the process from the top down; identifying what we would like to see and why we would like to see it.
In her book Becoming a Candidate, author Jennifer Lawless provides survey data about why people choose not to run for elected office. The main reasons provided were:
- Engaging in a Negative Campaign
- Soliciting Campaign Contributions
- Dealing with party officials
- Loss of privacy associated with running a campaign
- Spending less time with family
This was a starting point for designing the concept of our platform — if we are going to build a political utility that encourages people to participate in both running for office and connecting citizens deeper with the candidates we had to address the issues outlined above. We came up with the following solutions:
- Remove the showmanship and personal attacks so commonplace in American politics so that both candidates and voters could focus on the issues and not the distractions.
- Remove all financial restrictions associated with running a campaign — ensuring that your ability to run for office is not determined by your socioeconomic status.
- Remove all concepts of party affiliation from the platform — OurSociety does not list or support any party identification or functionality, it focuses specifically on the issues and the individual.
- OurSociety has restrictions on what can and cannot be posted by individuals campaigning for public office. Content must focus on their plans, policies, and vision. We do not allow material that is personally disparaging to an opponent — again this to move away from toxic campaigns that distract from the real issues that are so common in U.S. politics. We should note that OurSociety is not a Social Media platform. Instead, we are striving to become the public utility for running political campaigns.
- We wanted to make both running a campaign and learning more about the candidates as easy and convenient as possible. To make campaigning easier, we created a centralized and uniform platform where candidates can all be accessed in the same space by their constituents, giving them the opportunity to reach a large audience for free. Also, our space encourages individuals to get into details about what exactly they want to accomplish and how they plan on doing so.
- For citizen users, they can learn as much as they would like through candidate profiles or use our Societal Value Matching to help them make the best decisions while requiring a minimal amount of effort on their part.
In our prototype, we’ve built a strong starting point for meeting these requirements. Each candidate has a unique profile and can, in theory, run their entire campaign online. By publishing their issues, plans, and vision articles/videos, they can reach their constituents from the convenience of their own home. Voters can learn as much as they would like about the candidates by viewing their information and the information of their competitors on a single, uniform, and easy to use platform.
Citizens who do not have the time to read up on all of the candidate’s details can tell OurSociety about what issues matter most to them through our Societal Value questionnaire and be matched to the candidates on their ballot who align closest with their values. OurSociety provides an overall match as well a detailed matching report broken down into 27 different categories for our users. This way citizens can feel more confident than ever that they are voting for someone who will vote accordingly to their shared values.
Finally tying into our core purpose — a free and open election will, in theory, encourage more people than ever before to run for office. This is a great thing. America has a political class problem, and if we are going to build a more equitable, inclusive, and open society we need different perspectives in our leadership positions. By making the path to involvement and engagement easier, faster, and less costly than ever before we hope to bring new community leaders to light and give more options for the American populace. This also gives current elected officials more opportunities to branch out from their parties determined issue and platform base, exploring new ideas based on merit rather than retaining party control.
OurSociety is in a Beta stage and consists of two critical components for better democracy — a community engagement platform and the free election platform we discussed today. As our organization grows and evolves, we will build additional functionality to give candidates using the OurSociety better tools to reach their constituents and communicate their ideas. Our objective is to stop at nothing short of a national free and open campaign platform that is uniform in design, easy to use, provides a quick and easy method of accessing information, and fosters issue-based politics over divisive identity politics.
One final thought I’d ask you to consider. When we founded OurSociety, we recognized that due the nature of our purpose acting as a non-profit was the only real choice to ensure the success of our mission. As mentioned earlier there are alternative campaign platforms that exist today owned by for-profit organizations that focus helping candidates generate capital, essentially perpetuating the influence of money on politics. Also, for-profit social media giants are playing an increasingly broad role in American politics; as we’ve observed this can have some dire and unintended consequences.
OurSociety is our collective experiment; it belongs to all of us and will only work if we all choose to create accounts and become involved, even at the most basic level. Do we as a society have the willpower to make this radical change in the way we chose our leaders? Can a small non-profit combat billionaires and corporations who seek to control the national direction? Our real challenge is not one of means; the technology exists today with OurSociety. The real problem is one of willpower.
 U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout Drew Desilver Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/
 Elections: Is There a Better Way Than America’s? Thomas K Gross. US News & World Report https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-11-09/the-us-elections-is-there-a-better-way  Campaign Finance: Comparative Summary Nicole Atwill Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/law/help/campaign-finance/comparative-summary.php
Tillam Act of 1907 Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tillman_Act_of_1907
 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission OpenSecrets.org https://www.opensecrets.org/news/reports/citizens_united.php
 Becoming a Candidate Jennifer Lawless, Cambridge University Press p. 171 https://books.google.com/books/about/Becoming_a_Candidate.html?id=lEGfs1iKsXsC
Originally posted on www.oursociety.org/blog