University students build website to better connect citizens to their representatives

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 2:09pm

Shawn Danino, an Information and Public Policy graduate student at the University of Michigan, sees a problem in the American electorate. In his view, too many Americans choose not to participate in the political process because they see it as inaccessible. A few months ago, he decided to do something to bridge that gap by creating VotePledge.us, a website that offers a quick way to contact one’s government representative.

VotePledge functions in a simple format wherein users can enter their location and to find their representatives and information on their voting records. Currently, the site gives information about votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act, though Danino hopes to expand the website to cover other issues soon. After this, the site also offers a pre-written message that users can send to their representatives promising to vote or not vote for them based on their position on the ACA.

“More interactions with our elected officials need to start with the sentence, ‘I will not vote for you if,’” Danino said. “So basically, setting up that conditional, where you’ve clarified to your elected official what your deal breakers are.”

Danino’s goal is to expand the site to cover issues that receive wide support and benefit all people. He sees the ACA as a fundamental part of the American health care system and one upon which many people now rely for their care. He cited several empirical studies and congressional reports that conclude almost all Americans would have to pay more for health care should the act be flatly repealed.

Congressional efforts to repeal the ACA appear to be on hold for the moment, and the focus of the site will soon be changing. While he hasn’t decided which issues he will tackle next, he is considering advocating for universal background checks for gun purchases. He cited polls showing that more than 90 percent of Americans would support such a measure as a reason to pursue the initiative.

Danino said he recognizes the political nature of the issues advocates he for, but he emphasized the site is supposed to be a nonpartisan tool. He intends to work on any issue, regardless of political affiliation, where there is widespread support.

“These issues are human issues to me,” Danino said. “Those issues affect both Democrats and Republicans. … I recognize that these issues get politicized, and that’s just sort of the nature of politics. Distilling the issues to where there’s a common thread that both Democrats and Republicans are interested in pulling at — I think that’s a goal.”

Danino has worked with a number of collaborators on the project, one of whom is LSA junior Nathan Halquist. Halquist met Danino when both were volunteering for the local arm of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2015.

Halquist had the technical skills required to put the project in motion. He built the first prototype of the site and oversaw design when other developers were brought on board. He sees political technology as the future of activism and community organization.

“It’s absolutely the future of politics. That’s the new way to engage voters,” Halquist said. “There is a role for people in the technology world and people who are programmers and things like that to use their skills to make a difference.”

Halquist points to VotePledge as a prime example of the potential of this fairly new field and shares Danino’s passion and vision of the power of the project.

“It really lowers the barrier of access to congresspeople,” Halquist said. “I think a lot of people either don’t know who their congresspeople are or don’t really know what the process is to actually be able to communicate with them.”

Public Policy junior Lauren Schandevel, communications director for the University’s chapter of College Democrats, shares this sentiment. Schandevel believes many representatives do not always act or vote in the interests of the people they represent, and projects like VotePledge help to solve this problem.

“It makes it easy for voters to get engaged, particularly voters who haven’t been engaged before,” Schandevel said. “The more people that are involved, the more accountable our representatives are to their constituents.”

According to Danino, this is the exact intention of the website. He hopes it will prove a powerful tool for voters in the 2018 midterm elections.

“The goal is to help hold elected officials accountable, and honestly to equip organizers and constituents with another arrow in their quiver,” Danino said.

The University chapter of College Republicans declined to comment for this article.