Smartphones are central to many people’s social lives, jobs and entertainment. They are also computers in our pockets that enable us to participate more effectively in government.
We’re not talking about rattling off a quick rant on Facebook. One of the most important democratic acts at your disposal is directly contacting elected officials to weigh in on issues that matter to you. Dozens of apps and websites can make your political voice heard, but not all of them are equally effective and even fewer are nonpartisan.
Here’s a guide for reaching your elected officials to make your voice heard.
Can Tech Make Democracy Great Again?
Find your state and federal reps
Step one: Figure out who represents you. There are roughly 30 or so people that have been elected and appointed to represent each of us in the U.S. In his column this week, Personal Technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler has the best ways to figure out who those people are.
Keep tabs on what they are up to
On the state level, the nonpartisan site Openstates.org shows past voting records and a list of what bills are up for vote, and when. On the federal side, an iPhone and Android app called Countable, which counts Democrats and Republicans among its advisers, shows what bills are being considered by Congress. The app also sends push notifications on voting days.
Avoid Twitter and Facebook
Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are more like a one-way street -- good for hearing what your elected officials have to say, but not for telling them what is on your mind.
Government hasn’t found a good way to make sense of all the feedback they get through social media, said Alex B. Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group advocating for press freedom and government transparency online.
“Once you know who your legislators are, sending a tweet or a Facebook post is easy,” Mr. Howard said. “But with floods of messages coming from people who may or may not be in their constituency, it’s easy for elected officials to ignore that feedback too.”
That’s not to say letting your viewpoints be known on social media is wrong, he said. “It has an influence on other people around you and that matters,” Mr. Howard said. “But reaching your friends and family still isn’t the same process as reaching your senator.”
Still, social networks are working on tools to help users participate more in the political process. Facebook, for example, let users plug in their addresses to see where to vote on Election Day, and learn about candidates and ballot initiatives.
Pick up a phone or a pen
While tech can help us keep tabs on our legislators, the most effective way to let them know where you stand on issues is to go old school with phone calls and letters.
“If you write a letter or you phone in, a lawmaker’s office can verify that you’re a member of their electorate and that’s something they can’t easily do with an online poll or petition you found,” said James Turk, founder of Openstates.org.
Write to Nathan Olivarez-Giles at Nathan.Olivarezemail@example.com