The 2016 election is already defined by an immense amount of voter dissatisfaction and disaffection. In a recent NBC/WSJ poll, 69 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that they “feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power.” A prevailing view among voters is that politicians are in it for themselves, their party, and their donors. This moment seems ripe for political disruption, but can such a movement actually translate at the ballot box –– at all levels?
I attempted to test this question when I ran for Congress last election cycle as an independent and entirely citizen-funded candidate. We ran the most successful campaign of its kind in the country, raising more money and garnering more votes than any other Congressional candidate challenging both major parties. We even earned endorsements from over two dozen mayors. Yet, we still came up a whopping 50 points behind the incumbent in a three-way race.
It was the same story in other districts, and the incumbent Congressman joined nearly 95 percent of his colleagues in being reelected to an institution with an 11 percent approval rating in 2014. You don’t need to be a political scientist to know that the way elections work is broken.
Without easy access to trusted information about the candidates on their ballot, most voters rely on party affiliation and paid advertising to guide their votes –– if they choose to participate at all. Not only does this help perpetuate the political status quo in elections, but it also distorts the incentives for leaders to govern in the public interest once in office.
We think there’s a better way.
Change.org, the world’s largest platform for civic action with over 30 million users in the U.S. alone, is launching a new elections platform called Change Politics. On Change Politics, voters are able to engage directly with candidates and browse substantive endorsements from the people and organizations they follow, eventually all the way down ballot.
Our vision is to shift electoral influence from partisan affiliations and political contributions to trusted recommendations. Many voters already use the input of their friends, family, colleagues and others whose views they respect and values they share to guide their vote. They may include, for example, individuals who have a unique perspective into a certain race or organizations who closely monitor where candidates stand on a particular issue. As a result, their recommendations are trusted and carry with them real political value.
For example, imagine that each of the mayors who endorsed my campaign was able to send their endorsement directly to the digital ballot guides of 5,000 followers they had on Change Politics. In politics, that buys a candidate a lot more than a $5,000 check any PAC can write. With some new technology, we can help voters access candidates recommendations from their network and, in the process, help make trust the most valuable currency in elections.
Systemic reform and accountability will arrive with an electorate that is less swayed by the forces of the political establishment and is more influenced by the informed perspectives of trusted individuals. Just as technology and social media have changed virtually every other aspect of our society –– shifting power from archaic institutions to new networks and individuals –– so too can it change politics.
Troiano is politics manager at Change.org. He is a 2016 Forbes “30 Under 30” leader in Law & Policy and a former independent candidate for the House of Representatives. Learn more at www.changepolitics.org.