As most obviously demonstrated by our government shutdown this week, the deeply divisive political stalemates in our civic dialogue are an undeniable area of concern for our country. When we relegate the framing of political discourse and shaping of public opinion to talk show hosts, partisans, and lobbyists, we citizens lose our voice in the harsh and often unconstructive political dialogue shaping critical decisions today. To reclaim a citizen-centered democracy, to rebuild public trust and civil discourse, we’re going to have to do it ourselves at the community level.
The decisions facing Washington citizens these days are often confusing, yet they can profoundly affect the quality of our communities and our personal lives. That’s why it is imperative that we consider them carefully, with due deliberation and with the benefit of community wisdom in a forum that is nuanced, pluralistic and collaborative. We need to come together as citizens to explore our electoral choices — without accusations, rancor and acrimony — knowing that we’re all going to share the profit and loss generated by our collective decisions on Nov. 5.
While the Internet is hardly a panacea for creating a more civil society, it can provide access to vast and immediate information resources, diverse perspectives and person-to-person communication. By harnessing the power of this connectivity, it is possible to foster deliberation and respect while still maintaining vigorous debate and free speech. The non-partisan and free Living Voters Guide (livingvotersguide.org) is our project to support just that.
Since 2010, CityClub and the University of Washington Department of Computer Science and Engineering have collaborated to produce a Web-based resource to advance digital democracy in Washington. The Living Voters Guide invites all Washingtonians to discuss vital ballot measures together, to explore one another’s positions, and to build a personal, customized platform that will inform their final vote. This voters’ guide is co-created by everyone who participates. It evolves as you and neighbors across our state consider the tradeoffs for each measure. It requires participants to pledge that they will not make personal attacks on others but focus on the issues before us. It invites everyone to wrestle with both the pros and cons of the ballot measures in a deliberative path toward decision making.
This year’s Living Voters Guide offers some classic features as well as some new ones. As in years past, we are continuing our partnership with the Seattle Public Library, which provides fact-checks by request on any comments posted to the site. Responsible Choices, a non-partisan Washington nonprofit, has provided additional information on the statewide initiatives, including an economic impact study and the sources of funding behind each measure. We have also developed the website to build a stronger community of peers. Now you can see how your comments have influenced others, and learn where your influencers are coming from. To create a more civil and real conversation, you can also “thank” other users for offering quality insights on a topic.
In a time when our national government has fallen into disarray due to the divisiveness of our political landscape, we have to step up. We can show our representatives and communities that there is merit to debating and considering trade-offs on the issues that matter to us. We can lead the way, and the Living Voters Guide can provide an effective channel to help start these conversations.
Diane Douglas is executive director of CityClub, Seattle.