For years, voters who wanted to learn about issues and discuss them with their elected officials in Congress have had to use a somewhat fragmented set of traditional methods.
To get reliable information, voters might have read newspapers in print or online. Some might have attempted to read the legalese within specific bills if they could find them on the U.S. House or Senate websites. In turn, newspapers would subscribe to expensive services like Roll Call or Congressional Quarterly to offer briefs on bills in motion each week, including their local congressional delegates’ votes on each.
To reach out, voters would write a letter, call, or email. Advocacy groups and special interests have made it their practice to build email lists in an effort to generate petitions and letter-writing campaigns in favor of their agendas.
But now developers at a variety of companies are using software to create web-based systems for voters to stay on top of issues and to more directly communicate with lawmakers in Washington.
One such company is VoteTocracy.com, which was developed “to bring Main Street to K Street,” according to VoteTocracy CEO David Kraljic.
The New Jersey-based VoteTocracy — which was first created in 2009 and was redesigned and began full-time operation in 2013 — offers a searchable database of legislation and members of Congress. They also recently developed a new product to be used in conjunction with online news organizations that allows readers quick access to information about the issues of the day and engagement in the political process at the moment they are thinking about it most, Kraljic said.
“They read about” an issue “and get animated while reading the article,” Kraljic said. “That’s the point where they need to do something, and this seemed like a natural fit.”
The product, called DropBill or DropRep depending on which information it is highlighting, allows a reader to simply hover over the digital names of bills or elected officials’ names, and VoteTocracy will access key information and present it on the user’s screen as a popup.
For example, a bill’s information box would list its title, sponsors, its history, a detailed summary, its background, and information on who would be affected. Readers also would be able to register with VoteTocracy and share with Congress whether they agree or disagree with the bill.
A senator or representative’s information box, meanwhile, would list their party affiliation, which district they serve, how long they’ve been in office, how many bills they have sponsored or co-sponsored, the names of their last three sponsored or co-sponsored bills, and the committees on which they currently serve. They also will be able to send that elected official an email right from that information box.
Kraljic says the purpose of the email access is twofold: to help repair the communication breakdown between elected officials and their constituents, and to bring this type of communication to the next level, technologically.
“Prior to this the only way to communicate” with an elected official “was to write a letter, but there was no way to measure the effect or outcome,” Kraljic said.
He cited a 2005 Congressional Management Foundation study that said about 200 million messages were sent to congress that year, and that number has only increased since.
“There was no way to know what those messages said,” Kraljic said. “It’s a little bit of a measurement tool to see that Congress is doing their job.”
DropBill and DropRep are very new VoteTocracy products, Kraljic said. They’ve only been out for 2-3 months. The company is also developing a Chrome extension that, when installed, basically inserts DropBill on any web site, flagging any bill in Congress with a chance to comment on it.
“We are turning the entire web into a congressional bill voting platform,” Kraljic said.
VoteTocracy’s website, meanwhile, is a highly-detailed and informative database of all legislators, bills, and key policy issues. In-depth analysis of a legislator’s background includes not only basic information like their biography and political affiliations, but how they voted on each bill and how that vote compares to how congress as a whole voted as well as national sentiment.
Information about bills includes detailed summaries and the status of congressional support for each. Information on key policy issues includes in-depth analysis of each issue and its legislative history. Information on the site is updated regularly, Kraljic said. Bills are updated every night, and information about legislators is updated as necessary, such as when there are campaign finance updates.
While most of the site can be used for free or without signing up, people who want to send email through their voting system would need to register with the site, Kraljic said. Additionally, there is a paid version that’s geared more toward journalists and people who work in government affairs.
The voting system allows a person reading about a bill to click a “yes” or “no” option to indicate if they support the bill. They then have the option to write a customized letter, and their vote is sent to their senator or representative’s inbox, Kraljic said.
More recently they’ve started giving options to send the vote to more than just a senator or representative, Kraljic said. For example, if a bill is in committee a vote can be sent to all committee members. There are 12,000 bills in Congress at a time, Kraljic said, and they can sit around in the committee stage for a long time.
Kraljic emphasized that the voting system is really more of a poll, since non-elected officials can’t vote on bills.
Still, VoteTocracy allows someone, after a vote is taken to the floor, to see if they agree or disagree with their representative, Kraljic said. People can see if the country, a state, or a specific demographic agrees with that standpoint.
A section of the site, called the Scoreboard, uses a color-coding system to indicate how much an elected official agrees or disagrees with the mood of the country when making decisions.
While they aren’t a polling company, Kraljic said, this information is still good for an individual to use when elections come around.
“As a personal measuring tool I can’t think of anything better,” Kraljic said.
There is no VoteTocracy app, Kraljic said, but the site is mobile-friendly.
VoteTocracy is not the only site dedicated to helping people become more engaged in the political process. OpenCongress.org — which is operated by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which is dedicated to government openness and accountability — allows users to look up information about bills, senators, representatives, roll call votes, and the like.
Countable.us has the same functionality, and also allows people to look up trending issues, such as marijuana legalization and civil rights concerns.
However, Kraljic said, VoteTocracy is thus far the only site that measures outcomes on an individual, state, district, and topic level.
VoteTocracy has also been nominated for a 2014 Webby award for its user experience.