The voter’s friend
Perhaps it hasn’t crossed your mind yet. Kim Alexander, however, already is thinking ahead to next March. As president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, she knows that the lion’s share of the statewide primary ballot will consist of various propositions and referenda. And part of her mission is to translate the often-inscrutable text of those ballot measures into language your average voter can comprehend, which CVF posts online at its Web site, www.calvoter.org. Alexander caught on to the small-d democratic possibilities of the Internet early on, and she foresaw a future where voters could access that medium to educate themselves.
How long have you been with California Voter Foundation?
Seven years. I restarted a defunct nonprofit organization that was on the verge of being terminated. It was just a shell of an organization when I took it over in 1994, and I re-dedicated it to advanced new technologies to improve democracy.
Posting that information on the Net is the principal thing CVF does?
Our main focus, initially, was to put reliable election information online. But we also want to be a catalyst for getting the government to put reliable election information online also. So we view our success not only in terms of what people can access on our site, but in general what kinds of information people can access anywhere on the Internet that helps them. We’ve been at the forefront of efforts to mandate electronic filing and Internet disclosure of money in politics in California. And, today, virtually every campaign contribution made in California is accessible online through the secretary of state’s Web site. And we use that data to do our own analysis that can help the public understand the role of money in politics, by compiling lists of the top-10 donors for and against every measure on the ballot. That’s a service we’ve been doing since 1998, and it’s become very popular.
How do you think the Internet has changed politics?
From the voter’s perspective, it has radically changed our voting experience. Six or seven years ago, if you wanted to make an informed decision, it would take a lot of time and many phone calls and research to try to understand these complex propositions that we’re asked to vote on. And my idea was that, understanding that people are busy and nobody has enough time in a day, everybody needs convenient access to reliable information. When you have 30 to 40 decisions to make on your ballot, and a couple of booklets with lots of information in them that are sent to you that sometimes can be very confusing, it’s no wonder that people give up and say, “Forget it. I don’t want to vote.”
What about posting campaign contributions online?
We call that “digital sunlight.” I think it has a big influence on the impact that money has in the process. I mean, the whole idea of disclosure of money in politics is that you want to make the influence of money transparent to the public. Now, through Internet disclosure, it’s possible for people to quickly find out where the money’s coming from and what interest groups are pressuring the Legislature. And I think the Internet disclosure has just begun; it only started last year, and I think that over time, more and more people will be using that data. People really need a truly non-partisan source of information they can trust, because there is so much disinformation out there. The campaigns are putting out a lot of messages that are really designed to confuse voters, scare voters, manipulate them [laughs] and do just about anything but inform them. And the commercial news media is cutting corners and costs, not doing as much investigative work, and is less likely to provide comprehensive news coverage on everything on the ballot, so it’s really important that there are other resources in the service sector, the nonprofit sector, to fill in the information gaps and give people a fighting chance.
In this last election, the media completely dropped the ball?
Yeah, I think a lot of people—myself included—were profoundly disappointed by the media’s performance in the last election. Even before the whole fiasco, I began to feel the election was really a travesty. I watched all the presidential debates and thought, we’re not really getting what we need here. One of the only places where something real happened in the last election was online, where the Nader-trader movement erupted almost overnight, in a very organic way. People promised to vote for Gore, and others promised to vote for Nader in strategic states. The secretary of state [Bill Jones] shut it down and said that it was illegal. But in the meantime, basically, it was the equivalent of Napster—a very profound gesture on the part of the voters to say, "We’re going to take this election into our own hands. And there may be rules that exist that we don’t like, but we can find ways to work around them through using this tool." In the long run, my hope is that the Internet will be a tool that reduces the need for money in politics, and that people who can raise some money, but maybe cannot compete dollar-for-dollar with the candidate funded by the special interests, would be able to be competitive, get their message out and organize a grass-roots campaign.