Voice of the voters

Citizen engagement platform LawMaker eyes Sacramento

A Los Angeles-based startup that aims to give citizens an online platform to better reach their legislators has its eyes on the Sacramento area.

The platform is called LawMaker.io, and the idea is to create a direct line of communication between voters and legislators—or at least give people a stronger voice in the creation of new laws. Here’s how it works: An elected official picks a topic and commits to use the policy with the most support in their district as inspiration for a new bill or motion. So far, two LawMaker Challenges were held in Southern California, and the first resulted in Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu’s motion related to increasing government transparency and disclosures.

The second prompted U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley of California to consider a user-generated proposal to introduce legislation that would reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Brownley has committed to using the LawMaker Challenge as the basis for a new policy or program.

Hold up, though: Doesn’t this sound like legislating at the ballot box? And doesn’t that often result in poor policies? (We’re looking at you, Propositions 8 and 13.) Not according to LawMaker co-founder Amit Thakkar, who said all of the ideas are proposed in simple terms by ordinary citizens, but must be vetted by legislators.

“Users submit their ideas publicly to their elected officials, who still have to consider the ideas, write them into viable policy and build a political coalition among their colleagues in order for the bill to pass,” he said in an email to SN&R. “Which, in our opinion, is exactly how it should be.”

But it’s also worth considering who’s likely to use such a platform, said Mark Brown, a Ph.D of political science and professor at Sacramento State University.

“There’s a so-called digital divide where, depending on race and class, people have a lot less access to social media and online sources,” he said. “People who are more tech-savvy, people with more time and money, are going to make more use of this.” Indeed, from Brown’s perspective, LawMaker is a potentially useful tool, but it doesn’t address what he views as the fundamental problem with American democracy. “The problem is not that legislators don’t hear from us enough,” he said. “It’s that they ignore what they hear.”

Stay tuned. The startup will launch a LawMaker Challenge in Sacramento later this year.