PoliticsOnline (2/18/04): Using Online Tools to Build Local Communities and Increase Voter Turnout
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The e-journal of politicking on the Internet
Volume 8, Number 3
February 18, 2004
A project of PoliticsOnline -
News, Tools, And Strategies
Phil Noble - Publisher
David Abel - Editor
USING ONLINE TOOLS TO BUILD LOCAL COMMUNITIES AND INCREASE VOTER TURNOUT IN 2004
By: Jo Lee
With MoveOn and the Dean campaign as role models, there has been a growing trend in the development of online tools for local community organizing. For example, based on exposure to MoveOn's email campaigns and participation in my neighborhood's struggle against a hospital's expansion, we launched CitizenSpeak - a non-profit that offers a free email advocacy service for grassroots organizing. With CitizenSpeak, anyone or any organization can set up a MoveOn-like email campaign and invite their contacts or members to participate.
At the time, I thought that CitizenSpeak's value was that it empowered individuals to express their concerns about local issues to targeted decision-makers. I soon realized that CitizenSpeak's real value was that it let grassroots organizations build capacity by tracking participation and expanding their list of supporters.
With CitizenSpeak, organizations can download reports that include participants' contact information and personal statements. With this information, organizations can learn who their more ardent supporters are and what concerns them. Because CitizenSpeak allows participants to forward email campaigns to their circle of friends, CitizenSpeak reports also include new contacts that can be added to an organization's database. Online campaigns provide a cost-effective way for organizations to empower their members and broaden their pool of potential donors and supporters for future actions.
But now that the 2004 election is around the corner, I'm realizing that there is another value to CitizenSpeak. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has famously argued that the rate of American's participation in civic associations has declined over the past few decades, and with it rates of participation in other forms of civic engagement such as voting. If members of associations are more likely than nonmembers to vote, than a "get out the vote" tactic for 2004 should include efforts to increase associational affiliations.
Online tools for local organizing can play an important role, perhaps more so than organizing for national issues, in fostering a more civic-minded electorate and in turn reversing the trend in declining voter turnout. Local email campaigns can:
Reach More People: Local campaigns often address niche issues that tap into a pool of people who might otherwise not get involved in national issues. These individuals may be more motivated by activities in their neighborhood that directly impact the value of their house, the quality of their drinking water or safety of their children. Participants in local email campaigns may also be less inhibited and feel less intrusive about forwarding a local email campaign to neighbors to get them involved.
Build Stronger Networks: Based on reasons of proximity, these same people are more likely to attend a local meeting where face-to-face deliberation can take place and stronger ties formed.
Demonstrate Politics and People Matter: A successful local campaign (getting a toxic dump removed) is a learning process and can produce very visible and tangible results. As people get involved they become better informed and have a better understanding of how the system of government works. A successful campaign demonstrates that people can make a difference and that politics isn't just for politicians and special interests.
Increase Accountability: Democracy isn't just about voting once every four years, and delegating all power to representatives. It's about continuously exercising your rights and ensuring that representatives and officials do their job. Through local campaigns people can have continuous input into the decision-making processes. Just by looking out their windows, they can see whether or not their elected officials are responding to their demands, and vote or act accordingly. This not only increases accountability, but it also builds trust in our political institutions.
CitizenSpeak is one of many easy-to-use and free to low cost tools available for local online organizing. However, awareness about these tools remains limited. My hope is that larger organizations, committed to getting out the vote in 2004, turn to these tools to empower local organizations and in turn reinvigorate an American tradition of civic association and improve voter turnout rates in 2004.
Jo Lee is Co-founder of CitizenSpeak. For more information visit http://www.citizenspeak.org or email Jo Lee at jo_lee at citizenspeak.org.