Grokking Democracy: A Political World Transformed by Digital Technology

How technology is changing the rules of campaigning and governing in the United States and beyond

The hour-long radio special “Grokking Democracy” examines how elections and governing have changed in today’s digital world. Cohosted by political journalist Jonathan Alter and public radio anchor Lisa Mullins, the program looks at social media campaigns, e-voting, and other transformative tools. We hear from campaign managers and political strategists and discover ways that digital technology has changed civil society from Northern Europe to South Asia.


Lisa Mullins: This is “Grokking Democracy,” from IEEE Spectrum. I’m Lisa Mullins.

Jonathan Alter: And I’m Jonathan Alter. Today we look at a political world transformed by digital technology.

Jim Gilliam: Most of politics is about consolidating and acquiring power. And the Internet fundamentally wants to democratize things. It wants to spread power as broadly and as accessibly as it possibly can.

Lisa Mullins: How is the Internet affecting democracy?

Jonathan Alter: What does it mean for elections and governments?

Lois Beckett: Instead of relying on intuition or guessing or experience, they’re starting to test everything, to do a science of campaigning.

Abhi Nemani: That’s really the power of technology in local government, right? Is that you can change the conversation, change the interaction points between citizens and their government.

Lisa Mullins: In the U.S. and across the globe, technology has changed the rules of an old game…

Jonathan Alter: …and ushered in a new digital age of politics.

Lisa Mullins: First, this news.

Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins, and this is “Grokking Democracy,” a production of IEEE Spectrum.

Jonathan Alter: And I’m Jonathan Alter.

Lisa Mullins: If we asked you what topic occupies your mind every day—what you think about, read about, talk to people about—what would your answer be?
We put this question to Alex Keyssar, and his answer was simple.

Alex Keyssar: I spend some hours every day thinking about democracy.

Jonathan Alter: Not only is Alex Keyssar drawn to the issue of democracy, he’s vexed by it.

Alex Keyssar: I mean, it’s not a matter of what we were promised by the founding fathers. This actually has much more to do with our society’s own rhetoric and our public beliefs and public values about the United States as a democracy and the reality of the way the institutions work.

Lisa Mullins: In this hour, we’re going to look at the way the ancient practice of democracy works when it runs headlong into that new-ish institution: high technology.

Jonathan Alter: We’re going to be hearing about how high tech shapes democracy in this country and abroad, among women, among college students, in presidential campaigns and races for school board.

Lisa Mullins: And we’re going to start it off with the man who’s preoccupied with democracy: Alex Keyssar at the Kennedy School of Government. He’s written, among other things, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. By the way, I happened to sit in on one of Alex’s classes. He asks his students not to use computers for note-taking because they’re too distracting. But he says if they have to use them, for Pete’s sake, don’t e-mail the professor during class!

I mention this because there’s another dimension of any discussion about the impact of high tech—and that is human behavior. And how we interact with technology is evolving.

Jonathan Alter: Alex Keyssar says democracy is customarily defined as “rule of or by the people.” It began in Athens and other Greek states around 500 B.C., and it unfolded over the course of a century. It wasn’t a steady path. The history of democracy shows a pattern of two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes, two steps back. And with that ragged growth can come chaos. It happened in the U.S., and it’s happening now in the Middle East.

Lisa Mullins: Here’s how democracy was born in Greece. It’s complicated, but in effect, an influential leader or family came to power by saying it had to appeal to the people—and then it created institutions to make that stick.

Alex Keyssar: Now, that said, I mean, one thing about Greek democracy which we have to acknowledge is that it was limited in Athens, for example, to the citizens of Athens, and citizens were a minority of the population. Women were excluded, as were slaves, and there were a great many slaves.

Lisa Mullins: The exclusions. If it’s ruled by the people, why were slaves and women excluded?

Alex Keyssar: Because only male citizens were defined as “the people.” This is an ambiguity in the history of democracy that goes way beyond Athens. It’s certainly something that’s very present in the United States. If you look at the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, “We the people,” but it didn’t include slaves, and it pretty much didn’t include women.

Lisa Mullins: Jonathan, flag this point, because it’s one we’re going to bring up later in the program. Just as we’ll talk about the digital divide in this show—who can access technology and who can’t—we’ll see how it impacts what was, and is, a democracy divide—that’s codified in law.

Jonathan Alter: But to continue with our timeline for democracy, Alex Keyssar says there’s increasing evidence that right around the time the people of Athens were experimenting with democracy, parts of the Middle East and Near East were as well. In the Western world, the Roman Republic followed the Athenians by implementing semi- democratic forms.

The movement went underground until the 17th century, when it erupted in England. There was a revolt and ultimately civil war against the absolute authority of the king.

Alex Keyssar: And then, of course, the next major episode in the Western history of this, or simultaneous episodes, are the American Revolution and the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, all three of them taking place within a very short time.

Lisa Mullins: And what period are we talking about?

Alex Keyssar: We’re talking about the end of the 18th century, 1776 in the United States, 1789 in France, early 1790s, I think, in Haiti.

Lisa Mullins: So can you give me kind of the thumbnail sketch of democracy in America?

Alex Keyssar: Well, in the course of the 19th century and into the 20th century, and by, say, the late 1960s, the principle was established, in fact, that “the people” included all adults or all adult citizens, male and female, white and black, Native American and European origin.

That is a formally proclaimed value. And I think you could say that we reached that by 1970. You could say the United States had something close to universal suffrage by 1970.

What has become clear is that the existence of that value, and even of electoral institutions, does not mean an end to conflict over who really gets to participate in and influence decisions over policy or over who will govern.

Lisa Mullins: Does it make you cynical about democracy and how achievable it is, even in a country considered so advanced as the U.S.?

Alex Keyssar: I don’t think it any longer makes me cynical. I think I’ve come to accept, for example, that, you know, a simple truism, which is that political parties do not regard preserving democracy as their job. Their job is to win elections, and they will take advantage of the rules or bend the rules in whatever way they can. That maintaining democratic institutions is somebody else’s job. It’s the people’s job.

Jonathan Alter: Alex Keyssar is a scholar of democracy and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. About those political parties whose job, as Keyssar says, it is to win elections? They, and politicians in general, have turned to the most rudimentary technologies to do that for millennia. And the people who Keyssar claims have the job of upholding democratic institutions? They’ve been using technology to do that just as long.

Daniel Kreiss: I would absolutely say that technologies have always been implicated in the democratic processes.

Jonathan Alter: Daniel Kreiss is assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Daniel Kreiss: And just to give you an example, I mean, I think I would, in the American context, talk about just how much historical technology, such as things like ballots and voting machines, played in the democratic process.

In the 1800s, for example, in order to check some of the power of political parties, what good government reformers were doing was creating things like secret ballots. Voting machines played a very similar role in this. Before that, what happened was that parties often issued their own ballots, and they color-coded them. And, of course, the party then could enforce loyalty. It could sort of make there be sanctions if you voted the wrong way, et cetera. So, in essence, people were voting in public, and through the technology it was made very visible.

Jonathan Alter: Fast-forward through history, and you get voting machines that helped keep your vote private. Forward even further, to this millennium, to see how technology shapes elections and campaigns now. And hold on to your hat.

Daniel Kreiss: Put simply, I think the Internet has provided lots of new opportunities for people to engage in politics, whether it’s having political conversations on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, whether it’s downloading a walk list and then canvassing people’s neighbors for a particular campaign. It really has lowered the cost of engaging in these sorts of activities. And it has supported, I would argue, sort of an increase in political participation, at least over the last decade and a half.

Jonathan Alter: Back in the 1990s, candidates had a kind of website labeled “brochure-ware,” just as if it were handed out on a street corner. They write their policy platforms; you read them maybe. It was using the net as a mass medium, and it was static. By the end of the decade, things had changed.

Daniel Kreiss: I think everyone roundly sort of acknowledges the McCain primary campaign in ’99–2000 as being sort of one of the pioneers of online fundraising. I think the Bush reelection effort doesn’t get enough credit for the work that they really did in terms of putting together an online operation that really supported what was taking place on the ground in very key states. And I think that’s part of the history here, is the ways in which the Internet doesn’t stand alone as sort of a separate campaign strategy but has to be integrated within an entire campaign. The Bush team, I think, in ’04, were really one of the first to sort of say, “How can the Internet support the volunteerism that’s taking shape in states like Ohio? How can we use the Internet to connect volunteers coming in online to actual field offices on the ground? How can we use the Internet to support people going out and canvassing voters in a way that then sort of generates data on the electorate that we can then sort of follow up on and use to turn out our people in a close race,” which it was. So I think the Bush reelection bid hasn’t gotten quite the attention that it deserves. But that’s also not to say that the Obama campaign in ’08, the Dean campaign in ’03-’04, weren’t also innovative in their own right.

Jonathan Alter: Kreiss says the important thing that both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns did was to create digital operations that worked in harmony with what was happening on the ground. With new volunteers, for example, they’d go online, give their e-mail addresses to field staffers, who would then tell them where to knock on doors to drum up votes. So they didn’t have to go to every house on the block. It became a huge tool in the big battleground states.

Daniel Kreiss: So, campaigns need a couple of very defined things. The mantra of the 2008 new-media division of the Obama campaign was money, message, and mobilization. Which is to say, they need money to fuel their field operations and their television operations, their advertising operations and their outreach effort. So you want to do things like fundraising online.

Message: You want to drive your message and get people talking about your candidate in a favored way. And here’s really where campaigns will use things like Twitter and Facebook, and then hopefully they’ll mobilize their supporters to then pass it on to their own networks. And that’s really, I think, one of the key innovations, at least over the last two cycles, were to say messages are going to be a lot more authentic when they actually come from our supporters as opposed to the campaign itself.

And then, finally, mobilization, which is to say, campaigns need volunteers. They need to turn their people out at the polls. So what they want to do, and this is where big data comes in, is that, you know, campaigns try very hard to use all the different sources of data that they have on the electorate to figure out who their supporters are, to figure out who is likely to be supporting them, to figuring out who might be persuadable, and then figuring out who the other candidate supporters are so that they can sort of ignore them. And what they want to do is they want to pull their supporters out and get them to the polls, they want to shore up the support of those who might be leaning in their direction, and then they want to try to persuade those people who are truly persuadable and ultimately sort of make that appeal. And really, data gets yoked to those basic things.

Lisa Mullins: That’s Daniel Kreiss, who is assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
 More of “Grokking Democracy” in a moment.

Jonathan Alter: This is “Grokking Democracy.” I’m Jonathan Alter.

Lisa Mullins: And I’m Lisa Mullins. Before we continue with the program, just want to mention, Jonathan, that you have a book out that’s extraordinarily relevant to what we’re talking about today. It’s called The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, and it talks about how the Obama campaign, the most recent one, uses big-data analytics and the Internet to change American politics. How did it change them, briefly?

Jonathan Alter: Well, you know, if Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to master radio, and John F. Kennedy was the first president to master television, Barack Obama will be seen as the first to master the Internet. And they were able to use digital technology and analytics—big data—for the first time to create huge new efficiencies in television advertising, online fundraising, and most especially, old-fashioned field organizing and get-out-the-vote operations. So while this all began in 2004 and 2008, it really reached fruition in the 2012 campaign. And, of course, 2016, it will be even more advanced.

Lisa Mullins: Building on it again. Okay, thank you, Jonathan Alter.

We’re going to turn now to Ethan Roeder, who was just out of art school when he got the political bug. And, what do you know, he wound up on the data team for the first presidential campaign for Barack Obama.

Ethan Roeder: I didn’t have any voter contact models. I didn’t have any kind of score that told me “Here are the people that are most likely to vote; here are the people that are most likely to support Obama.” By the time we got to January of 2008, I was starting to get a taste of what was to come.

Lisa Mullins: And what was to come was a set of sophisticated computer models that could help predict with stunning accuracy which voters were likely to vote for which candidate. For example…

Ethan Roeder: There’s a very ubiquitous tool on the Democratic side called the VAN. That stands for Voter Activation Network, and it’s basically a user-friendly interface that allows me to click buttons and make selections. Okay, I want you to tell me every voter who lives in Clark County who is between the ages of 35 and 65 and has a likelihood-to-support-Obama score of 60 or higher. And it’ll spit out a list for me, and it’ll allow me to do some calculations and figure out, okay, how big a list do I have? Now, let me go talk to my field director and figure out how many volunteers do we have, how many phone calls can we actually make, and then make a strategic decision about whether or not to make that list bigger or smaller based on our resources.

Lisa Mullins: It may sound basic, but tools such as the Voter Activation Network fundamentally changed campaigns. Campaigners could run more-targeted and -efficient campaigns and not waste time in places where they didn’t think they could have an impact. And this is worth noting: These innovations were not coming from a team of high-paid staff sitting around campaign headquarters in Chicago. They were ideas built from the ground up by volunteers and computer geeks.

Ethan Roeder: I remember working in Texas for the primary in March, and there was literally a van full of techies from California who drove out to Texas and unloaded into our campaign office in Austin and helped us with programming and building a tool; we called it the “precinct captain calling tool at the time. It was sort of one of the early versions of a distributed online call tool. It was just invented and built by volunteers from California who decided they wanted to go out to Texas for three weeks and give it a shot.

I’m amused sometimes to observe the extent to which people think they need the latest and greatest piece of technology, or the most sophisticated model possibly available, in order to successfully win a campaign. The fact of the matter is we went to the moon 45 years ago with a spaceship that had less computing power than your cellphone. I’m pretty sure that you can get a lot of what you want to get accomplished with Google spreadsheets and some pluck and a deliberate approach to collecting and paying attention to the information that voters are giving you just by having conversations with them.

Lisa Mullins: Ethan Roeder is executive director of the New Organizing Institute.

Lois Beckett: Politicians have been gathering information about voters for hundreds of years.

Jonathan Alter: Lois Beckett covers the intersection of big data, technology, and politics for the investigative online newsroom ProPublica.

Lois Beckett: But what’s changed in the past couple of years is the capacity to analyze huge sets of data very quickly. And that’s made politicians a lot more sophisticated about tracking voters in real time or something close to real time. And the other big innovation that we saw in 2012 was not just trying to understand voters sort of statically, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, but starting to do something like a controlled drug trial and trying to see, if I give a voter a certain kind of treatment, a certain kind of pamphlet, a phone call with a certain message, how will they respond and how can I figure out what kinds of people are, for instance, more easily persuaded to support a candidate by a certain kind of message?

Sasha Issenberg: All told, it’s created a way for campaigns to be far more rigorous about understanding whom they should engage, when, how, and what types of interactions they should be having with voters.

Lisa Mullins: Sasha Issenberg is a journalist and author of the book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. We wanted to know what was in the secret sauce of that secret science.
He said the field experiments and randomized control trials that campaigns have imported from the world of social science have given those campaigns a really good opportunity to treat us—or we the people—as guinea pigs.

Sasha Issenberg: We now have the ability in the world of campaigns to collect an immense amount of personal data—divine assumptions about people, future behavior, or attitudes from predictive models—but then also subject them to sort of ongoing testing to see what the attributes [are] of people who respond to the things campaigns can do to them.

Lisa Mullins: So do the campaigns know who I’m going to vote for before I know who I’m going to vote for?

Sasha Issenberg: Campaigns have a prediction of who you’re going to vote for before you may have decided, in the same way that a credit card company has a prediction of your likelihood of paying off your bill on time even before you’ve received your bill. And that’s basically what campaigns want to do. They’re creating these individual-level models. And the two things that they care most about predicting is your likelihood of voting, of going out and casting a ballot—they call it a turnout score. And then the other is a support score, percentage likelihood that you’ll support Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or the Senate candidate in your state.

Lisa Mullins: What are some of the latest things that I would do, and I would be unsuspecting that this might go into a Republican, Democrat, third-party campaign?

Sasha Issenberg: So you go out and you buy a toaster, and there’s a little card, and you check off that you’re a college graduate and that your household income is between [US] $50- and $75 000 a year and that you have two children and that you bought an appliance in the last month. Probably through some intermediary, a data vendor puts together a list of everybody that’s filled out that warranty form with the six little demographic things that they volunteered, and they sell it onward to a big consumer data warehouse like InfoUSA or Acxiom. These were developed first to help financial institutions develop credit rating scores, starting in the 1950s.

Jonathan Alter: Once again, Lois Beckett of ProPublica.

Lois Beckett: There are lists for sale from some of these companies about who’s pregnant or who’s recently had a child, who’s married and who’s divorced. All of these things that might seem personal to you, that information can be bought and sold.

Jonathan Alter: Well, it sure sounds freaky. But information about you that you thought would be useless might be at least a little helpful to the right campaign.

Lois Beckett: Politicians have the same goals as they’ve always had. They want to identify which voters they should talk to and which they should ignore, and they want to figure out what kinds of messages will be most persuasive. What’s changed is not just the technology that’s available to campaigns but the mind-set they have. That instead of relying on intuition or guessing or experience, they’re starting to test everything, to do a science of campaigning. So instead of just sending out an e-mail with a subject line that they think will be most appealing to voters, they’re going to test 10 or 12 different e-mail versions of an e-mail every day on a smaller subset of voters and only send out the one that’s most appealing.

Jonathan Alter: Sasha Issenberg and Lois Beckett have heard all the objections and fears about private, or even for that matter, public data about your life, your Facebook preferences, and what you’ve searched for on the Web. They don’t buy them.

Sasha Issenberg: Ultimately, could this technology be used for nefarious purposes? Sure. But political campaigns are in the business of doing three things. They’re in the business of finding people who they think would support them, who aren’t registered to vote, and going out and registering them. They’re in the business of finding people who they think support them, are registered to vote, but aren’t likely to already vote, and remind and encourage those people to go out and cast a ballot. And they’re in the business of finding people who are likely to vote, who are active in democracy, but haven’t yet made up their minds, and giving them more information and arguments to try to win them over to their side.

Lisa Mullins: Journalist Sasha Issenberg’s newest book is called The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.

Tekla Perry: I’m Tekla Perry, and I’m at the San Francisco headquarters of Code for America, an organization that’s a bit like a Peace Corps for geeks.

Lisa Mullins: Code for America’s crews of idealistic geeks are bringing cities and counties into the world of apps and online tools and social networking, and changing government into something the newest generation of voters can relate to.

Abhi Nemani: If you think about doctors, they have Doctors Without Borders, a way to give back. Students or young professionals have Teach for America as a way to give back. Geeks have never had a way to really use their skills for public service. We’re giving them an avenue to use their skills, use their talent, to actually do some public service and make their cities work better.

Tekla Perry: That’s Abhi Nemani, co–executive director of Code for America. At 24, Nemani embodies the optimism and energy that drives this organization. Code for America uses technology to change local governments, not just so they work better, says Nemani, but so that they work in a way that his generation can relate to.

Abhi Nemani: The government we have doesn’t always look and feel like us. I can pull up my smartphone and find out how my bank account’s doing. I can find out how my favorite sports team’s doing. I can do that on my phone, and that’s how I’m used to interacting with things—right?—with my institutions. But I don’t interact with my government that way, which means I don’t feel as connected to my government, like that it’s of me, by me, for me. And that’s the change that happens when you build simple little apps.

Tekla Perry: These simple little apps, Nemani believes, can make democracy stronger.

Code for America’s flagship program is the one-year paid fellowship. Geeks apply to spend a year working in teams to help selected cities. They’ve built apps to help parents track school buses, apps to make sure fire hydrants and sidewalks are kept free of snow, and apps to allow neighbors to get or provide information about abandoned property.

Tekla Perry: Code for America was founded in 2009, when Jennifer Pahlka, an organizer of huge tech conferences, including Web 2.0 and the Game Developers Conference, was approached by a friend who worked for the City of Tucson. The friend asked, half in jest, if Pahlka could send a couple of developers down to see what they could do. Tucson never did get those developers, but the question got Pahlka thinking: What could smart technologists do if they had an opportunity to work on the problems of local governments? By 2011, Pahlka had funding in place from major foundations, 19 fellows selected, and three cities lined up.

The fellows start their year not knowing where they’ll be sent or what they’ll be doing. Ariel Kennan is working with two cities this year: Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.

Ariel Kennan: I had never been to Kansas City before February. I kind of came into this being like, okay, we’re going to go build some new apps for cities, like, not fully knowing exactly what we were going to do.

Tekla Perry: The mayors asked Kennan and her codeveloper to focus on helping the local business community; in response, they’ve designed Web-based tools to help local entrepreneurs more easily navigate the digital world, to build Facebook pages, set up Twitter accounts, and do other things to promote their businesses. If they find the tools useful, the city governments hope, the entrepreneurs would start seeing government as a partner in developing their businesses, not as a bureaucratic obstacle to navigate.

Maybe a few Web tools in themselves aren’t going to change the world. But they could be a start. Nemani calls it “changing the conversation.”

Abhi Nemani: To actually build trust, build engagement, and build a positive relationship between citizens and their government.

Tekla Perry: Code for America 2011 Fellow Joel Mahoney expressed amazement at the way his work changed one particular conversation in Boston. Nemani describes the challenge Mahoney found there.

Abhi Nemani: The city of Boston would send parents this really thick, 30 pages, this pamphlet for parents to try to decipher which schools their kids were eligible for. The process was so frustrating that parents actually started complaining about it pretty publicly.

Tekla Perry: Mahoney and his codevelopers built a Web-based tool they call Discover BPS. Joel Mahoney picks up the story:

Joel Mahoney: We’re walking parents through a very complex decision-making process and ultimately trying to help them make really informed, intelligent choices for their kids. We let parents enter a couple of pieces of information, an address, a grade level for their child, and all of a sudden with that information are able to give personalized results based on their home address and show them on a map which schools are you eligible for and which ones would best meet your stated needs for your child.

Tekla Perry: But, Mahoney continues, the change didn’t stop there.

Joel Mahoney: After we launched Discover BPS, the mayor announced in his state of the city speech in 2012 that he was making a commitment to improving the school selection process in Boston. So that kicked off a series of community town hall meetings for the next year, and a doctoral student from MIT started attending these town hall meetings and was just listening in, Peng Shi. And he basically just started listening in to the complaints that parents were expressing and realized, hey, we guarantee you a certain number of quality choices and a certain number of schools within a walking distance or close to home.

With an algorithm, we can do that. You know, Peng started showing up to these town hall meetings and proposed his algorithm to the school department, and they reviewed it and realized it actually was a pretty elegant solution to this problem. And it was eventually selected as the new policy. So, I mean, this is a debate that has been literally raging for 40 years, and last year it changed radically, and technology played a pretty important role in the possibility of that change.

Tekla Perry: This work in Boston may have been the beginning of Code for America’s story, but it is far from the end: 650 people have applied for 30 of the 2014 fellowships; 50 city or county governments applied for what will likely be 10 government slots. The organization has also started an accelerator program to help start-ups aimed at building technology for local governments get off the ground. It also has something it calls the Brigade, to organize tech-savvy volunteers to work with local governments.

And it’s going international. Codirector Nemani…

Abhi Nemani: So, this year, we’ve actually launched Code for All, which is our international program.

Tekla Perry: Code for All is starting with pilot programs in Mexico City, the Caribbean, and Germany, all intended to use technology to make local governments work better and, by doing so, make the democratic process better. I’m Tekla Perry, in San Francisco.

Jim Gilliam: Most of politics is about consolidating and acquiring power. And the Internet fundamentally wants to democratize things. We’re making it so that anybody has access to these same tools that the Senate campaigns and the presidential campaigns have access to.

Lisa Mullins: He’s harnessing the power of people online. And by the way, as Gilliam himself will tell you, some ideas have worked better than others. You may have heard of Jim Gilliam. There’s a video of him that went viral. It’s called “The Internet Is My Religion.”

Jim Gilliam [from clip]: We all owe every moment of our lives to each other—we are all connected. We are all in debt to each other. The Internet gives us the opportunity to repay just a small part of that debt. As a child, I believed in creationism, that the universe was created in six days. Today, we are the creators.

Lisa Mullins: He’s a longtime political hound, and he’s also the man behind the 2008 online experiment called White House Two.

Jim Gilliam: So the whole concept was, could you run the White House democratically, with thousands of people over the Internet, where no one was in charge. That was the fundamental premise.

Lisa Mullins: The idea was to get major progressive organizations, such as MoveOn, together. He wanted them to agree to a set of priorities—say five or 10—that they could get people to champion. Then they could present a cohesive voice and a plan of action to the administration.

Jim Gilliam: And so I started pitching this idea to a bunch of these folks, and many of them liked the idea. And then they went off and they did their own version of that that was completely not at all connected to each other. They used it as a way to build their e-mail list and sort of better segment their list based upon what issues people cared about. Nobody actually did it for the real purpose, which was to create a unified voice amongst the progressive movement. I was kind of annoyed by this, that that was sort of what the plan was, and I got this idea of, well, why can’t we just crowdsource it? Why can’t we just create a website that does this instead?

Lisa Mullins: Not one to be deterred by a challenge, Gilliam went ahead and created a website that was pretty straightforward. In 60 characters, the users ranked what issue was most important to them—say, stopping the war or shutting down Guantanamo Bay or investing in education. Now, remember, at this point in 2008, no candidate was really using the Internet as an outlet for people to talk to the government.

Jim Gilliam: So what ended up happening was we attracted an awful lot of conservatives, in particular the Fair Tax movement, which is basically a push for a flat tax with some sort of minor restrictions around it. It became very popular within that community. The big takeaway that I took was that, you know, we can create sort of amazing technologies that will allow people to all be civil with each other, in a public context, in a political context, and all of that stuff we worked out kind of bit by bit, and it was great. But if you want to actually make progress around something, you can’t have one group of people involved that doesn’t actually want the thing to succeed. And that’s actually when I decided to shut it down.

Lisa Mullins: Not to be daunted, Jim Gilliam used what he learned building White House Two and developed a software called NationBuilder. Political campaigns and businesses are now using NationBuilder to organize communities online.

Jim Gilliam: The challenge is just that previous to NationBuilder, it’s been extraordinarily expensive and required a lot of technology skills to be able to pull all that off.

The key lesson I learned from White House Two was that everybody wants to be powerful. And when everyone is powerful, then the world is more equitable.

Lisa Mullins: The guiding principle for Jim Gilliam, who created White House Two and is now founder and CEO of NationBuilder.

Coming up, some examples of how countries, their citizens, and the media are harnessing the power of the Internet. You’re listening to “Grokking Democracy” from IEEE Spectrum.

Jonathan Alter: Welcome back to “Grokking Democracy.” I’m Jonathan Alter.

Lisa Mullins: And I’m Lisa Mullins. One of the most-watched places where technology and democracy converged is the Baltic state of Estonia, population 1.3 million, just about the same as San Diego, California. Estonia pioneered e-voting—that’s voting using the Internet. And Tarvi Martens pioneered the system that makes it work. In 1996, Martens helped craft a national ID card that has a computer chip built into it. The card lets Estonians vote over the Internet, digitally sign their name, and carry out a lot of civic business online.

Tarvi Martens: It looks like a driver’s license or bank card with a picture ID, but it has a chip on it, and with this chip you can communicate with the computer, and you can log in to various e-services. You can digitally sign. And both of those functions are also engaged by the Internet voting system.

Lisa Mullins: But here’s one hitch: What if your brain isn’t totally engaged, meaning you forget your PIN number. Not that that ever happens!

Tarvi Martens: Well, it’s personal responsibility to actually keep your card and your PIN codes with you. And if you might lose it, you call a 24/7 number and revoke your certificate. So basically it’s a personal responsibility.

Jonathan Alter: And what the past decade or so has shown is that Estonians are a pretty responsible bunch. E-voting is catching on.

Tarvi Martens: Well, when we started, we reached, like, 1 percent of voters, which was below 10 000 people. Last time, two years ago, parliamentary elections, nearly a quarter of all votes were cast over the Internet. And so it’s a pretty popular system by now.

Lisa Mullins: And women dominate that system. Tarvi Martens says about 54 percent of the people who cast their votes over the Internet are women. And every election turns more women and more seniors into e-voters. By the way, Estonia is a pretty tiny country, but its influence is mighty. If you ask Tarvi Martens how many other countries have made a pilgrimage to Estonia to learn at the hand of the master—meaning him—he says the list would be quite long. For starters, Norway is having its second experience now with limited e-voting this year. Switzerland cranked up the e-voting in 2011. Martens believes that when it comes to the tools for success of Estonia’s e-voting, size matters.

Tarvi Martens: So, first of all, Estonia is a very small country. So it’s easy from one hand to reach a consensus in society. So I think the key element here is the size of the community. And second of all, of course, we, because of this ID card, I told you before, without that, it’s nearly impossible to conduct a secure Internet voting.

Jonathan Alter: So there are a couple of issues that would face the U.S. head on if it wanted to adopt widespread Internet voting Estonia-style. One would be whether Americans would want to carry one of those ID cards in their pockets. Another would be whether there’s enough funding to create an e-voting system. In Estonia, the state picks up the tab. Even immediately after 9/11, Americans in both parties rejected national ID cards on privacy grounds.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of cybersecurity. The bigger the country, the larger the online voting system. And the larger the system, the more things could go kerflooey on election day.

Tarvi Martens: But, of course, the larger it becomes, then there will be more interest to attack it, and people are afraid of that attack. People don’t really understand the real threats of the Internet, and so everything makes them afraid. To bring you an example, there is a real threat that if you go outside and walk, then you can be killed by the brick falling from the roof, right? But for some reason, you still go out. If it comes to the cyberspace, then everything scares people off. But the other thing is to try it out and see what the real threats are.

Lisa Mullins: Tarvi Martens has consulted with Washington, D.C., about technologies to enable, for instance, members of America’s military abroad to cast their votes over the Internet. While the U.S. is in the nascent stages of e-voting, Estonia is fine-tuning its technology. It’s making it more secure, more robust, and maybe opening it up for year-round elections, for unions, local governments, and even at universities. In fact, as we spoke to Tarvi Martens, the pioneer of e-voting in Estonia, he was in the midst of a multiday trial run of a new system.

So the upshot of all of this? Well, Tarvi says he doesn’t think that e-voting will radically change who votes or who wins elections.

Jonathan Alter: This sounds like a good time to head from the former Soviet Union, a few thousand miles east, to Seoul, South Korea.

Lisa Mullins: South Korea is a playground for high technology and a country with eager early adapters. It’s hard to believe that democratic-style elections were reintroduced to the country only in 1987. Voter turnout was robust in the beginning, but it’s tapered off since. So recently, one broadcasting entity in South Korea took on the responsibility of doing something about it. We got one of the senior journalists there to tell us about it.

Chong-ae Lee: My name is Chong-ae Lee. I’m a senior reporter for SBS, Seoul Broadcasting System. It’s one of the three major broadcasting stations in South Korea, and it’s the biggest and the first private broadcasting station in Korea.

In 2012, we decided to do our election coverage differently. That before it was mainly what exit polls [said] and [what] the turnout was, but we wanted people to engage more and to see how we could make people vote more. So what we decided to do is, we told people after they vote to take a picture in front of the poll station and send the pictures to us. After we got the pictures, we put the pictures on the screen on the underneath part, and the idea went wild.

When the people took the picture, usually they took it on their phone, and they could upload it by their computer or with their phone, and also, the people, when they saw their pictures on the TV, that they will tweet or put their pictures also on the Facebook. It was a kind of way to spread the story—what was happening and how these people were actually participating—and then also showing them how this was a fun thing. And so it was more, I think, in a way, not just burdening them, saying this is your responsibility, but trying to make it like a fun culture thing. More young generation, especially, thought it was very cool. The social media really helped in that role. Because of this, a lot of the younger generation, who never was interested in voting at all, went out for the first time to vote.

When this happened, in the president election in December, we decided to go further. So we asked them to send pictures. At the same time, we told them to tell us when they were going to vote. And then we sent stickers—and so they could put stickers on their car telling what time they’re going to vote. Because of that, they were inspired to vote, but also people around them got more interested in voting.

For the first time in the presidential election, when they had a lot of this young generation people’s pictures on the TV, the older generation also got a little bit nervous because they knew these young generation, if they’re voting for the first time, they will be voting for the wrong person. So they also went out to vote. So the voting rate at the end was the highest ever since 1987. It was the first time that the voting rate didn’t drop, and it went up.

Jonathan Alter: That’s Chong-ae Lee, senior journalist for the Seoul Broadcasting System. Now, from South Korea to South Asia.

Beena Sarwar: My name is Beena Sarwar. I’m a journalist from Pakistan, and I’ve been working for a long time on peace, media, gender, and democracy issues.

Lisa Mullins: Beena Sarwar grew up in a Pakistan ruled by dictatorship. And she recalls being a part of early efforts to inform the women of Pakistan about the laws that repressed them and their families.

Beena Sarwar: I mean, I remember public protests and rallies and meetings, you know, seminars, in sometimes, in low-income localities. We would rent out a kind of a tent and put sheets on the ground. And women would come in—many of them would be bringing their children with them. And somebody would talk to them about what these new laws were doing, how they were affecting their rights. And many of these women were completely unlettered, had no, couldn’t read or write. So taking the message to them in a way that, you know, just by talking to them, and then handing out sheets of paper, often in the local languages, for those of them who could read, to spread the word. So the idea always, has always been, of course, to spread the word—to spread awareness. And so the social media now has made that possible in a much more accelerated way.

Lisa Mullins: And what kind of information would it be?

Beena Sarwar: It would be information about what the laws were that were being imposed on us in the name of religion—what those laws were doing to our rights, how they were being affected. There would be information about specific cases of women who had been targeted under those laws and who were fighting for their lives either in prison, usually. Some of them had been sentenced to being whipped or executed by stoning to death, that kind of thing. And so there would be updates on those cases.

Lisa Mullins: So you were a firsthand witness, really. Over the years you’ve been witness to the changes in the tactics, in the delivery mechanisms, in terms of technology, to democratize the women anyway of Pakistan, and see the results. Tell us what you saw from then on, like starting with those mimeographed carbon copies. Then what?

Beena Sarwar: You fast-forward to e-mail, and then people sending out mass e-mails.

Lisa Mullins: That’s way fast-forward.

Beena Sarwar: Way fast-forward, because in between we had, like, what I consider a period of darkness. I mean, for—after the ’80s, then you have the ’90s, with the age of the e-mail. And then you move on to the year of 2000s, and you have blogs. And then you have, toward end of 2000—of the decade of the 2000s—you have blogs, and you have the social media coming up. You know, then it moves forward very fast—accelerates much faster then.

So, I’ll tell you a story that I, like, many years ago, maybe during the time when e-mail had become big in Pakistan. I got an e-mail from a young woman who wanted help. She had been locked up in her house by her father, and she wanted to marry a man that she had met while at university. And she managed to get hold of a computer and e-mail, and e-mailed me. And I was able to send [her] the contact of her fiancé—of the man that she wanted to marry.

And I thought it was a hoax at first. I was like, you know what? It sounded really dodgy to me. But I followed it up, and it turned out to be not a hoax. And I was instrumental in helping her to escape and find a lawyer. And she married this young man, and they had a baby afterward, and I’ve been in touch with them—not for many years now, but I hope they’re not cursing me for having gotten them together now. But, so she used technology, she used e-mail, to escape from an oppressive domestic situation and exercise her right to marry the man that she wanted to marry.

Lisa Mullins: And what about on the bigger picture? You just got back from Pakistan; you traveled all over the place. What did you notice about the influx of technology and of social media in particular, in terms of democratizing people—giving people who wouldn’t have a voice, a voice.

Beena Sarwar: So you don’t have to be in Pakistan, because the social media, Internet, makes it possible to connect virtually wherever in the world you are. And you don’t have to be in Pakistan to see that women have taken to Twitter in a big way. Among the Pakistanis who are using the social media in a very particular way to further ideas of democracy and peace and women’s rights, there are many, many women at the forefront of those campaigns who are using Twitter to try and democratize the discourse, to change public discourse, to get ideas out in the public, to bring issues into the open.

Lisa Mullins: And is it enhancing democracy in any way, the use of technology, social media?

Beena Sarwar: I think they’re helping in the sense that they are a platform for voices. It’s giving voice to people where people had no voice before. You have now people what’s termed a “citizen journalist,” so you have people using technology to document human rights abuses or, you know, to ask for help in situations. And whereas before they would be voiceless, nameless people. Even people who are not highly educated, or even people with a rudimentary education who know numbers, are using cellphones and text messaging. And I think those are really helping to connect people and make communities less isolated.

Lisa Mullins: Beena Sarwar recently turned us on to a gathering of several dozen students in a crowded brick factory building off the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was called a Pakathon. Pakistanis in their teens and 20s and a little bit older too were coming up with ideas for software that would help ease some of the most pressing problems in their homeland: corruption, crime, poverty, and the availability of education. Even in remote parts of Pakistan, many people have cellphones, so that’s a pretty good start.

One of the people presenting ideas at the Pakathon was Ali Jafri. His group created an interactive map that tracks where there have been sectarian killings in Pakistan. Jafri is philosophical about how apps like his can make Pakistan less violent and more democratic.

Ali Jafri: Will this technology ensure free-and-fair elections in five years? No. But I think it’ll inform the public to make better decisions. Generally, this entire weekend I feel has been a democratization of services and institutions that had been the exclusive domain of the governments, and here we’ve discovered that, you know, with just a couple people and some technical skills, you know, you can make a difference in however way you want. It’s the democratization of solutions.

Lisa Mullins: Another attendee was Fatima Mirza. She’s a junior at Harvard. She and her team came up with a project called Code Orange. If it gets funded, it’ll have instructors in the U.S. teach classes to young people in Pakistan. The instructors will have a cultural understanding of Islam, which will help as they teach subjects such as sexual education.

Fatima Mirza: So, we’re looking mainly at health-related subject matter—something that really comes to mind, for example, is sexual and women’s health, but also basic sanitation and basic hygiene, and nutrition.

Lisa Mullins: By the way, there was a good example of the democratization of solutions going on in that very room, aside from what you heard. Because the solutions weren’t only coming from Pakistani students in this country; they were also coming from young people in Lahore, Pakistan. They connected by Skype with the crowd in Cambridge and presented their own ideas for technologies that they think could improve life in the country.

Jonathan Alter: This brings us to one final thought for this hour, and it comes from Ethan Roeder, whom you heard earlier. Roeder is the executive director of the New Organizing Institute. He believes that the key is connecting the new and the old: technology and old-fashioned shoe leather, where volunteers go out and talk directly to voters. The advantage that technology provides to a campaign, whether it’s for school board, city council, or president of the United States, is not about the technology itself.

Ethan Roeder: I think that the idea of creating relationships with voters and citizens goes hand in hand with modern technology. They aren’t opposing forces. When they’re used well, they’re forces that support one another. Social media is a great example of that. Using social media effectively is about putting engaging content online, engaging in conversations with people, listening to what people have to say, and inviting them to be a part of a conversation. It’s not about having a more-sophisticated platform than the other guy or having a more-sophisticated data team behind the scenes, although that never hurts. It’s about how you approach the technology.

Lisa Mullins: You’ve been listening to “Grokking Democracy,” a production of IEEE Spectrum.

For related stories and more information, check out the IEEE Spectrum website:

Jonathan Alter: We had support for this program from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. More information on Sloan at

Lisa Mullins: Our thanks to Susan Hassler, John Barth, Mia Lobel, Paul Ruest at Argot Studios, and the staff and editors of IEEE Spectrum. Our technical producer is Dennis Foley, and our executive producer is Sharon Basco. I’m Lisa Mullins.

Jonathan Alter: And I’m Jonathan Alter.

Lisa Mullins: This IEEE Spectrum production is presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Illustration: iStockphoto