This article is from the December issue of Total Politics

Online politics is almost as old as the web: the US non-profit organisation produced the first election information website back in 1994. In internet terms that’s a long time, but the net has been slower to make its mark on democratic politics than it has on friends’ networks or buying things you don’t need.

Maybe this says something about people’s motivation to pursue these respective tasks, but the issue runs deeper than that. While the internet is superb at linking people together in a free, unpredictable and often unregulated way, the official workings of electoral democracy are highly regulated and kept separate from anything that might be perceived as partisan campaigning activity.

Recently, however, pioneering projects overseas have been exploring greater linkage between online political discussion and election information and processes, paving the way for a powerful new phenomenon in online politics.

As with many examples of cutting-edge, online social projects, the countries where they are emerging – Latvia and New Zealand – are relatively small, allowing room for experiment on a manageable scale.

As voters in Latvia – population 2.3 million – went to the polls in mid September, thousands of them may have had their votes influenced by a website that allowed them to quiz almost half of all national candidates directly about their views. – literally, “smartheads” – is a social networking site allowing candidates to register their profile, state their motivation for becoming an MP and answer public questions. Devised to address the lack of an active campaigning culture in a country that only broke free from the shackles of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the site also allowed users to “try on a party”.

In a questionnaire filled in both by the candidates and by the voters, participants are asked for their views in 21 different key policy areas, before voters are matched with their closest parties.

This is not a new concept: in the 2010 general election the Vote Match site, a non-partisan project run by the independent campaign organisation Unlock Democracy, played a similar role for UK voters. In fact, no element of the Latvia project is new in itself. What is new is the scale of the project – some 440 of the country’s 1,092 parliamentary candidates registered and engaged with citizens, including the prime minister and several cabinet members – and the combination of elements, including debate, candidate information, vote matching and social media interaction.

After the election the website was converted into a communication platform between the citizens and their newly-elected representatives, with more than half of MPs from all parties represented now using it to communicate with voters.

The implications for all democracies are fascinating. User feedback from Latvia has indicated that the website helped to decide which candidate or party to support, and also helped build trust between citizens and politicians, a commodity in short supply well beyond the former Eastern Bloc.
This new kind of multi-faceted electoral engagement is not just effective in societies that are newer to democracy: at the beginning of this month, a website went live in New Zealand profiling all candidates and parties standing in the country’s national elections on 26 November. (tagline: “Decide/Who will reside/In the Hive”, referring to the country’s beehive-shaped government building) was developed by the independent council-owned body Local Government Online (LGOL). It offers voters the ability to ask a question of all candidates standing in a certain area, a feature that LGOL chief executive Cassandra Crowley says allows the public to make more direct comparisons across parties.
“Being e-based it recreates an electronic town hall or campaign meeting for our modern lives,” Crowley says. “It also allows candidates to reach out to disengaged or disinterested voters. It potentially has the ability to lower the cost of engagement for candidates and voters alike.”

Does the site mark a major shift in democratic politics? “Any shift in democratic processes is rarely attributable to a single concept or change,” she says. “What does have the potential to change the balance of democratic election is the pervasiveness, price and proximity of technology within our everyday lives, and the demand that this evolution should also apply to democratic processes.”

If this is true, then we’re witnessing the ‘evolution’ of a new model of politics where online tools are coming together to create stronger accountability and clearer links between policy and power.

One UK observer who supports this analysis is Mary Reid. She was one of the first UK councillors to have a website – self-built – and was for many years the blogging and social networking Liberal Democrat mayor of Kingston-upon-Thames at a time when this was unusual. She now chairs the international work of the same that created the first US electoral website, and says the coming era of social media-driven politics will be characterised by a two-way exchange that politicians will have to embrace.

“Those who ‘get it’ are using the internet as a space where they can both get their messages out and go to to find out what people are thinking,” Reid says. “Of course, there is still fear in some quarters of losing control, but my advice is always to say to politicians, it’s there: you can’t ignore it or complain about it. Go where people are, and listen to them.

“At heart, the question is not about online media versus offline media: it’s about a person’s view about participatory democracy. Do you believe in participatory democracy or do you believe you have to go away and be ‘the representative’ from one election to the next, without referring back to your electorate?”

Some MPs might privately answer this question differently from the way they would in public. But as online politics evolves, their choice in the matter may be disappearing.

Just as the internet has changed so many other parts of our lives, so the changes it’s working on democratic politics are gradually shifting into place.

Tags: Issue 42