A candidate for alderman in Chicago's 44th ward is building an online portal that he says will hold politicians' feet to the fire.
Representatives elected by the people no longer represent the people. That's how Mark Thomas, a candidate for alderman in Chicago's 44th ward, describes the state of American politics in 2013. But Thomas has some ideas to change that. He has a website and a plan.
In early January 2014, Thomas is scheduled to launch a working version of WeThePeople44.org, a “hyperlocal” online forum and community meeting portal. Designed to include as many locals as possible, the website encourages people to register to vote, and gives people an outlet to discuss local issues that affect them. “I believe these types of social democratic websites that allow people to communicate are going to take the power back,” he said.
With the federal government now shut down and Congress' approval rating just above 10 percent, Thomas said he’s recently begun wondering what kind of world he will be leaving for his children if he doesn’t try to change something. A community activist for the past 30 years, Thomas said the future of democracy has been right in front of people for years with the tools the Internet provides – it just needs to be applied correctly.
Thomas is apparently something of a local character, a role he seems to embrace. “Weird is the new normal,” he said. Almost 59 years old, Thomas drives a Cadillac hearse, reports his income directly to the Federal Reserve (by choice), and owns a store called The Alley, billed as “the Midwest’s premier shop for bikers, punks, goths, rockers and all alt-styles.” In an online editorial, one of Thomas’ two daughters wrote that “almost everyone in Chicago has had some kind of problem with my dad.” Thomas' unapologetic manner of speaking makes it easy to imagine that he's made at least a few enemies in Chicago.
“After hundreds of community meetings, I began to recognize that the process had become flawed, and you ended up with the vocal minority, the people who always showed up at these meetings who didn’t necessarily represent the complete community,” Thomas said. Many cities and local governments have online portals that archive public meetings and allow people to watch live meetings online, but Thomas said his idea is different because it doesn’t just use technology to continue the political tradition. In his view, it can actually transform the dynamic of the political process and bring about change.
One of the biggest problems with politics today is that so many people don’t vote or even register to vote, Thomas said, and that’s one of the things he will try to address locally with his website. The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners (BEC) allowed Thomas access to his ward’s voter registration data, which he will use to confirm whether site users are registered to vote. Registered voters will be allowed to access a special forum on the site that will not be available to unregistered voters.
Unregistered voters will be segregated into their own area on the site. Likewise, business owners who register with the site and verify their status as 44th ward business owners will gain access to a business owners forum. Users of all three forums will be able to participate in mock votes on issues and sign up to speak during public meetings. Users unable to attend public meetings will be able to Tweet into the meeting as they watch from home.
To ensure that their local meetings promote equality and are well organized, Thomas said they will hire a professional organizer to plan them. Everyone who attends will RSVP, and each person who signs up to speak will be allowed three minutes before their microphone is turned off.
Results of mock votes will be publicly available on the website, displayed for each of the three groups -- registered voters, unregistered voters, and business owners. And while an elected official isn’t compelled to vote the same way as the people have, if most registered voters vote one way in a mock vote and an elected official votes the other way in a real vote, there could be real consequences. That official could very well be replaced in the next election, Thomas said, and that’s how democracy is supposed to work.
The site will provide transparency and an opportunity for people to speak and be heard, he said. Many of the design choices are informed by his experiences as a long-time local activist. One of the ways they will limit the influence of the vocal minority is by limiting the number and length of posts that people are allowed to make on the website. This way, he said, the forum won’t be dominated by just a few passionate people.
In the beginning, he said, they will recruit heavily in the community, calling business owners (most of whom Thomas said he knows already), and knocking on doors to get people to participate. The process will evolve as they see what works best, he said.
The website was built using WordPress because they wanted a low-tech, open-source approach that can be shared with other communities and easily change as they figure out what works best. If this catches on, he said, it could transform the political process into something similar to what existed in the early years of the nation.
“Someone asked me, ‘What happens if you lose the election?’” he said. “As long as the website gets out, I’m a big winner.”