In case you haven’t noticed, it’s an election year. Along with making promises, shaking hands, and kissing babies, candidates and their supporters are leaning heavily on Web 2.0 sites to deliver their message.
But they’re not the only ones. There are scores of political action sites that can help you get up to speed on laws and legislation, see how elected officials are spending your money, argue with fellow citizens on issues of import–and even make and broadcast your own political ads.
It was either Alexis de Tocqueville or Hunter S. Thompson who said that, in a democracy, people generally get the kind of government they deserve. Here are five ways to get your just desserts.
Why wait until the Tuesday after the first Monday in November to cast your ballot? At Govit.com, you can “vote” on pending legislation, post comments, then compare your votes with those of other Govit users and your elected representatives. After you vote on, say, closing Guantanamo Bay or opening the continental shelf to oil drilling, you can submit your choice, along with a brief note, to your local Congressperson, U.S. Senator, or the President.
The site also features a handy map to each Congressional district and the executive branch. (Quick, who’s Secretary of the Department of the Interior? Give yourself five points if you came up with Dirk Kempthorne.) You can drill down into each Congress member’s voting record on every bill and follow the money trail of their biggest campaign contributors. The site is still in beta and was a bit slow to respond–much like Congress itself.
Launched by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and Internet campaign guru Joe Trippi, Change Congress has one explicit goal: to change how money influences our nation’s political process.
The wiki is built around a four-point pledge: To receive a full four-star rating, candidates or office holders must vow to accept contributions only from individuals, not committees or lobbyists; to support banishing earmarks from legislation (earmarks are unnecessary provisions often added to bills to serve as paybacks to large donors); to reveal who they’re meeting with and where their campaign money comes from; and to support public campaign financing.
A handy map on the home page displays how much money each politico receives from political action committees (PACs). You can find out which of these positions (if any) a candidate or representative supports by clicking the “Tag” tab and plugging in your ZIP code. If there’s no information available, you can add it along with the source for the information (like a Web site). Site administrators will verify or correct this data later.
Though nominally a wiki, Change Congress isn’t very interactive; so far, all you can do is add information about what positions candidates have taken on the four-point pledge. It’s also still a long way from being comprehensive, and much of the information displayed on the site was unverified at press time. But the biggest changes always start with small steps.
You say you’ve always secretly yearned to be a political media strategist? Here’s your chance. At SaysMe.tv you can select a pre-fab 30-second political ad and run it on one of several TV channels. (At press time SaysMe was available in 11 U.S. cities; by year-end it plans to sell time in 82 cable markets nationwide.) You can choose from a few dozen ads promoting issues on either side of the political stripe, with new ones added each week. Then pick the market and channel where you want it to run and how many times it should appear. Best of all, each ad ends with “Paid for by [your name].”
Of course, air time costs money. A single airing starts at $6 for CNBC in Cleveland and reaches as high as $2750 for TNT in Los Angeles. But you can also submit your own broadcast-quality political spots that others can use –and collect royalties every time someone else airs them.
Wanna fight? WhereIstand is the place to register an opinion on any number of hot-button issues, from global warming to the existence of God to whether obese people should pay more for their airline tickets.
It’s really more like a social network that’s built around opinions, the way Flickr is built around sharing photos or Facebook is built around throwing sheep. You create a profile, post a photo, pick the opinions or issues you want to follow, and then connect with people and chat them up. Site members can post a Yes or No question on any topic, and append their comments to each discussion. You can then compare your opinions with those of other WhereIstand members or of public figures, as compiled by the site’s administrators. Though WhereIstand’s topics run the gamut, the best arguments focus on politics–in a way that doesn’t involve one person screaming at another. That’s something you don’t often see in an election year.
5. Project Vote Smart
The granddaddy of political action sites, Project Vote Smart calls itself the “Voter’s Self-Defense System.” Its primary weapon: information. The resolutely nonpartisan site offers one-stop shopping for researching every aspect of a politico’s public life.
For example, you can see how your state and federal officials fared on the Political Courage Test, an in-depth questionnaire that takes their temperature on key issues from abortion to welfare (or notes when the cowards declined to fill one out). You can look up how they voted on each bill, search the text of every public speech, see how they were rated by interest groups like the League of Conservation Voters or the NRA, and follow the money trail. You can find out how and where to register to vote in your state, and get guides to every creature in the political food chain–from political parties and media to think tanks and polling organizations. Don’t visit a polling booth without checking out this site.