Over at Our Westwood (http://westwoodblog.org) I recently expressed my frustration that candidates in the upcoming September 14 primary for U.S. Congress and State Senate were unlikely to debate. I have a proposal for doing this online that will serve our communities, respect the candidates and voters, and increase participation and interest in the political process.
This needs to be local–sponsored and endorsed by real people with a stake in their communities. I’ve contacted the people I know in the area who run community sites like Our Westwood, and I am assembling a coalition to invite the candidates to participate. We will take on the responsibility of moderating and facilitating the public participation to avoid having the debate hijacked by extremists and “trolls.”
I think the format should be a hybrid of structure and openness. The debate will consist of three phases:
Phase 1: Developing Questions
During the last week of August, we will use “crowdsourcing” technology like IdeaScale to collect suggestions for questions and then vote the best questions to the top of the list. This phase will be “wide open” to anyone with an idea–i.e. no complicated registration, no verification of identity, anonymous participation OK. Then, our organizing committee will select 5 questions from residents to form the basis of the debate. If we can manage video interviews with those people, we’ll go out and record their questions directly using a Flip video camera.
Phase 2: Candidate Responses
We will set up a content management system with a structured commenting policy:
The questions will be posted by the debate moderator one per day at 9am. The candidates will have a window of 4 hours (the response period) before any response is published. This allows each candidate to respond but does not allow them to see their opponent’s response first. No public commentary is allowed yet.
After the initial responses are published (1pm), an additional window of 4 hours will be provided (the rebuttal period) during which candidates can respond to what their opponent said. At 5pm, the rebuttals are both posted and then the issue is open to public commentary.
Phase 3: Public Commentary
Public commentary will be available to users who register and provide basic identifying information and agree to a code of conduct. First name and town will be publicly displayed, but the person must also provide a last name, phone number, and email address for potential verification by the debate organizers. Anonymous comments will not be published. Comments can be text or video submissions, display a photo of the user if desired, etc.
If the candidates wish to continue participating, they may add their own comments. The candidate accounts will be officially verified and highlighted–i.e. no impostors allowed.
5 Days in September
I envision the debate cycle as consisting of a total of 5 questions–one per day–starting Labor Day, September 6. The public comment on question 1 will overlap with the response and rebuttal periods of subsequent questions, but I think it will be less complicated than that sounds.
What is needed?
Candidates – What I am suggesting here is a much more effective venue for communicating with voters than television, radio or a town meeting. We really need the people (see below) but if we make this work, I think it’s a venue of tens of thousands who will be able to really get a sense for why and how they should vote. I have not formally invited the candidates yet but I’d like to do this for our local Democratic primaries for State Senate and the 9th Congressional District of Massachusetts. With what we learn from this…perhaps we can cover more elections in the future.
People – I’m reaching out to bloggers and activists across the region because ultimately, we need to drive people to this. We can all post our little “you should vote” public service announcements, but I think a more effective way to stimulate civic participation would be to send people to a site where they can actually get useful information to help them make a decision about the primary. Also, I think the discussion itself will create interest and make it more likely people will vote.
Technology – There is definitely a big technology element to this project and although I can spec it out and could probably build it–I could really use help from a Drupal or WordPress guru who could create the site that powers this. Managing it is going to be “hands-on” so I don’t need a bulletproof fully automated software application here, but I need someone who really knows how to set up these kinds of user profiles and custom workflow rules in a way that is super easy for participants to use. I want an open source solution here–something you would be willing to describe to others–not some proprietary system or custom-coded application. This is something that should be possible to create in a day or less. If it takes longer than that, you are over-optimizing.
I’ve sent a few emails and talked to a few people–now I’m blogging for feedback. I’m open to suggestions and modification by anyone willing to help pull this off.