Six Problems With Our Democracy… And Who’s Working To Fix Them

As another Presidential debate looms, issues ranging from gerrymandering to political influence, to representation and even voter registration, probably won’t be on the agenda.

But in Silicon Valley and beyond there are several companies that are working to change the systemic problems with our government, and it’s worth highlighting their efforts.

If I’ve learned anything from five years of working at Capitol Circle, Votizen, Causes, and Brigade — and as an investor who worked at back in 2000 — the Herculean task of fixing government through technology can seem quixotic.

Since I left my day-to-day position at Brigade last month to re-join Bessemer Venture Partners, I’ve had the opportunity to have a lot of conversations with passionate entrepreneurs and innovators in the civic tech space who are slowly convincing me otherwise.

Most of my listening was accompanied by nodding in agreement. We speak the same language, see the same problems, and have visions that overlap more than I realized.

These companies aren’t competitors, the competition is human behavior, and the conditions and systems that have emerged over the past 50 years to affect that behavior. Here’s a few big problems we see:

Gerrymandering And Closed Primaries

Working on it:, California Citizens Redistricting Commission, others

People love to rail against “Washington” or “Congress”, but the fact of the matter is, Congress is us.

The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves. We elect our representatives, however over the past twenty years Congress has become increasingly polarized. It’s not by accident. The number of seats given each state is governed by the U.S. Congress, proportionally according to the latest census every 10 years, but which voters vote for each seat is up the states themselves.

Usually, the political party in charge of the state legislature will draw lines favorable to themselves, and pass them by simple majority. So even if a given population favors one party in statewide registration, by drawing the lines in the right way, you can give the other party the edge in Congress—this called gerrymandering. Wonkblog explains this best:

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When you combine this with closed primaries, which limit votes to only the members of a single political party, it’s a recipe for crippling polarization. The tea party uprising in 2010 is an example of this.

Most of us aren’t voting in primaries, those voters are mostly activists who favor the far left or right wings of their respective parties. In fact more and more voters are registering as independents which prohibit them from voting in closed primaries.

This is removing the moderate from the election process. Hence if a member of Congress doesn’t vote to please these primary voters, they will face a primary challenge—which since so many districts are safe Republican or Democratic districts—is much more of a threat than a general election challenger.

The solution here is to have open primaries or ranked choice voting, in concert with non-partisan and common-sense district boundaries that keep people with common needs together, i.e. city-dwellers are in the same district, not shared among other districts with rural voters, as they are in Austin, Texas. Even better would be more Congressional districts as ours were never meant to get so large. Presently there’s a number of groups working to combat this on a state-by-state basis.

Money In Politics And Too Many Voters Per Congressional District

Working on it: Crowdpac, Lawrence Lessig, Represent.US

Money, typically, is a proxy for votes. It’s a proxy for votes because most Americans aren’t engaged and informed, another problem. Hence the money is spent on advertising where you are engaged: television, direct mail, and increasingly Facebook, pre-roll on Youtube, and other social media and online platforms.

Television and direct mail is expensive, hence the need to raise hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for the typical Congressional run. Major donors and bundlers get disproportionate influence because that money is needed to be re-elected. Shouts of “corruption” often accompany this fact, but in reality, our politicans are mostly well-intentioned individuals who want to serve and help the public.

They’d prefer to be able to go directly to the voters and not a middleman with a checkbook, but with Congressional districts containing over 700,000 people, and the electorate not paying attention, this is the state of our Union. You can’t knock on that many doors, and the news media there to inform us is biased towards sensationalism over substance.

Independent expenditure committees and the Citizens United vs. FEC decision compound this problem as an unlimited amount of money can be raised to run more advertising. Who’s funding them is certainly clear to the candidates (whether they can officially coordinate or not).

The sad reality of social media platforms is that instead of being a place for two-way dialog between citizens and officials or candidates which could make money matter less, it’s largely another place where advertising can be run. Personal relationships will trump any negative advertising, and the technology is present to create these on a scale for our democracy, but we’re not there yet.

Lawrence Lessig is running a campaign for President on this single issue, previously, he ran a PAC called Mayday to fund Congressional candidates who wanted to get private money out of politics.

Represent.US drove and passed the first Anti-Corruption law in America in Tallahassee, Florida and continues to build a grassroots organization to champion this idea. Crowdpac gives members crowdfunding tools designed to dilute the influence of big donors by pooling small donations.

Everyone in the space however is working on this problem indirectly. Anytime you get another citizen fully engaged, you‘re blunting the need for money to message her.

Low-information Voters And Media Bias

Working on it: Crowdpac, Knight Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, OpenVote

Money matters in politics so much because it’s funding biased messaging where we’re spending our time, instead of us informing ourselves. The other problem we have is media biased towards sensationalism over substance.

Because I think their bias is towards sensationalism and laziness. I wouldn’t say it’s towards a liberal agenda. It’s light fluff. So, it’s absolutely within the wheelhouse. I mean, if your suggestion is that they are relentlessly partisan and why haven’t they gone and backed away from Weiner? Now, they jumped into the Weiner pool — so, with such delight and such relish, because the bias of the mainstream media — oh, I’m not saying it’s defensible, but the bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict and laziness. – Jon Stewart

The 2016 campaign season is a perfect example.

Media coverage of the GOP primary race has been dominated by Donald Trump, who offers more PR-worthy soundbites than substance; and the Democratic primary race has been swamped by the latest Hillary Clinton emails, and 250 days of Joe Biden speculation.

Trump is such a ratings draw that on Monday, September 14th, I watched Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN supersede their most important prime time slot, 8:00, with Trump leading a rally. Trump spent very little time talking about substantive policy, it was mostly self-congratulatory. Entertainment has bled over into information, and except for satire, to poor result.

We’re not being educated, though CNN leaves Trump on because we’re not changing the channel. We share in the blame for watching, and for allowing for-profit news channels when it’s so critical to democracy. Much like elections, publicly financed news could offer a solution. Either way, the fourth estate is failing us.

Crowdpac tries to solve this with intelligent voter guides that with little effort, match you with the candidates and ballot propositions (with plain and unbiased translations of what they really do) that reflect your values. Openvote just launched their first test with videos on each side of a pair of San Francisco ballot propositions.

The Knight Foundation has been funding community journalism to inform since 1950, trying to fill in the gaps created by a for-profit media world. Since 2006 the Sunlight Foundation has been building technology to support government accountability and transparency.

Civic action starts with an idea, one that inspires, makes you feel, moves you to want to do something. By pairing content with immediate action, Openvote looks to solve the problem I’ve long seen, where a viewer is entertained, informed, often outraged by a great investigative piece on This Week with John Oliver for example, and then goes to sleep.

The next morning we wake up, and our routines take over. We worry about getting to work on time, getting our children to school, and forget that the most important office in our democracy, is that of citizen. We have a civic duty to act.

People Lack Political Power Or An Easy Way to Mobilize

Working on it: Brigade, Crowdpac, OpenVote, Verafirma

It’s difficult to organize other people. Because of that difficulty, entrenched interests have an inherent advantage. The oft-cited example is the NRA. There’s no equivalent yet on the other side of this issue with the financing, membership, and ability to turn out that membership for elections and advocacy, like phone calls to Congress.

Hence the NRA dominates gun policy. Unions derive their power because they vote as a bloc. If members were to split their votes all over the place, they would cease to matter, and wouldn’t move candidates to fight for their endorsements. Well funded organizations and PACs use that money to buy advertising.

You can mobilize one person for free: you. Perhaps you can get your husband or wife to vote or call Congress. For most people that’s where their power ends. Maybe some talk to their friends and family about politics. What if you could mobilize 100 or 1,000 people? What if you could identify people that feel the same way you do about an issue, and motivate them to action?

Brigade was founded with this mission. Through simple position-taking, network is formed based on common positions, as opposed to a personal or professional relationship. Facebook and Twitter posts run the risk of negative feedback from people who don’t agree, and LinkedIn is inappropriate for this sort of communication, some would be putting their jobs at risk.

Crowdpac allows you to create a citizen PAC where you can pool your money. If you can get enough votes (members) and funding, you can definitely earn the attention of your member of Congress, or candidate for public office, in a way you just can’t if you only represent a single vote, or donation. Such a structure, if it could be easily built and reliably get members to vote like a union, would break the monopoly of entrenched interests.

Traditional community organizing of a new interest group is laborious, time consuming, and expensive; this condition favors the status quo. OpenVote similarly looks to build blocs tied directly to ideas and content that will draw in candidates to an already engaged audience, eliminating the need to buy advertising to target them.

“I actually think that the mechanics of running for office have very little to do with how qualified or good a potential leader can be. We optimize for people who can campaign well — not people who can govern well.” –Bobby Goodlatte

The larger engaged citizen groups get, the less money we’ll see in politics.

Verafirma is another company to watch that has been building technology and, more importantly, enduring the legal slog needed to make electronic signatures acceptable for nominating forms, ballot initiatives, and voter registration.

This is a game changing technology that will allow these types of efforts to spread and scale much faster, and for lower cost, online than people on street corners collecting “wet” signatures. Hilariously, the technology needed to do this legally requires an actual remote controlled pen to produce a wet signature from an electronic touch signature. Bravo.

Difficult To Communicate With Elected Representatives

Working on it: Capitol Bells, PopVox

Standing in the way of a vision of a republic fully responsive to her constituents, are the current systems that Congress has to understand the will of the people. Hence intermediaries fill that gap: lobbyists, interest groups, polls, sensational media coverage, etc.

The present state of affairs is an old Lockheed-built email software system that no member of Congress or staffer enjoys using, to be generous. The user interface of that for me and you to put information into that is an old-style web form, nevermind the selection bias in the first place.

Advocacy organizations feel this is so worthless, they push members to make phone calls to lobby their representatives in the House and Senate. With a handful of staffers per office, this doesn’t scale and requires painful manual tracking. Everyone loses.

In a recent roundtable discussion I listened to the complaints of someone working for a Representative from Washington about this technology. His number one pain point and challenge to Silicon Valley was a replacement for this system.

I smiled, waited for him to finish, then I asked, “If I delivered this to you tomorrow, could you use it?”

His response: “No.” Congress has an IT department too, and selling anything to the government makes B2B sales look like selling lemonade. Startups will run out of money waiting.

There’s one counter-example I know about, and it’s a stroke of genius: Capitol Bells. Representatives used to need to carry around pagers to tell them when votes were happening, many still do. However they also started carrying iPhones too like the rest of us.

Ted Henderson, the founder, hooked a radio antenna up to a computer in a friend’s apartment close enough to the Capitol to get the signals, and translated it into data and a push alert for his iPhone app. By solving an urgent problem for members, and letting them ditch the old pager, they installed his app in droves. Over time, Ted has added bill voting functionality so constituents can weigh in to their representatives.

Since 2011 PopVox has given Congress a dashboard that communicates what constituents want in a structured and visual way that is easy to parse and understand. Similar to Capitol Bells, it relies on citizens like you and me voting on bills, either on the PopVox site or through widgets on organization or news sites.

Driving adoption of this technology, then tying it to where citizens are engaging — for example right alongside content — is crucial to bringing about a better Congress where the will of the people can be properly heard, as opposed to the old lobbying trick of sending pages of black to the Congressional fax machines to kill the toner.

The problem today with both offerings is that bill voting is wonky and not friendly to the average citizen. The inputs into Congress still aren’t where we are online, or presented in a way we can understand. Most people have no clue what votes matter to them, and bills are often misleading in their naming and stuffed with pork or unrelated amendments. This technology in itself won’t cut it, it needs to be made relevant to you and easy to understand.

Difficult Register And Vote

Working on it: Smartmatic, Verafirma, California AB-1461 and similar automatic voter registration laws, vote-by-mail

In the United States of America in 2012, there are people who waited 7 hours to vote for President.

This is just ridiculous.

Smartmatic is the British company that powers Estonia’s elections. The technology is here, the problem is still security. The Department of Defense tried to offer online voting just for overseas service members, twice, and abandoned it due to security concerns and successful hacking efforts.

Smartmatic suggests this is a solved problem, but the United States doesn’t have a single national ID card like Estonia. And that one is complicated, and I don’t see any startup solving this alone.

It’s going to take legislation and a private-public partnership to make this happen, but politicians also have to want it to happen. As long as increased voter turnout favors the political left, the right simply will not favor any legislation or technology that could increase registration or turnout.

Democrats control California, so here you have a bill now that will automatically register anyone with a driver’s license. This in concert with vote-by-mail, which has existed in many counties for years, solves most of this problem; though you’re left with the information and decision-making problem, especially for ballot propositions, as the voter guides are comprised of opposing partisan arguments designed to cajole voters.

The Vision: Fully Engaged Voters In A Responsive Republic

The vision we all want is an engaged and connected citizenry, informing each other, and working with candidates and officials to build a more perfect Union. There’s a lot of obstacles in the way, however, we can get closer. This timeline graphic is one way I believe the pieces fit together:


Each company is working on one or more areas on this journey from idea to a vote—in an election or by a legislator.

  1. We need great ideas. People don’t take action in a vacuum, they need to be educated with information presented to them in a way that informs and inspires. A working fourth estate is critical to a healthy democracy.
  2. Action needs to beat apathy. We’re rarely moved to action from even the best ideas as the cost is high, and the benefit is unlikely. Easy and effective action needs to be available.
  3. Find agreement. One phone call or one petition signature from the average citizen is unlikely to sway a decision-maker. Political power comes from identifying many people who feel the same way as you. This needs to be easy.
  4. Gather resources. Once you know who’s in, you need to easily convince them to give money, pledge votes, or otherwise commit to act together. Apathy won’t be the norm if people understand how they can be powerful together.
  5. Deploy resources. Advertise to build your supporter base further, or convince that candidate to compete for your support thanks to the votes you can deliver. Dynamic groups that can pool votes would attract a better kind of politician as we wouldn’t be limited to candidates who can fundraise the most, or electeds needing to fundraise more than govern. We’d have a real marketplace of ideas.
  6. Woo candidates / electeds. The last mile of lobbying officials presently relies on phone calls and emails. There has to be a better way. Elected officials don’t want to spend more time fundraising than governing, they’d rather win votes by giving voters what they want.

Please leave your thoughts, share, and get in touch if you’re working on, or want to advance, this vision. None of this will ever happen if people remain apathetic and don’t believe it’s possible. I for one am as passionate as ever, and looking forward to what’s next.