Democracy 2.0 for the 99 Percent?

Can technology rescue democracy from grip of the 1 percent? Can we text our way to fairer elections?

Lobbyists, wealthy donors and the new Super PACs dominate U.S. elections. The Supreme Court has sharply limited solutions by turning the First Amendment into a tool that these well-heeled interests can use to control the political process.

In the short run, the best we can do to push back on Super PACs and the super rich is to encourage millions of average citizens to provide a counterweight to the rich by making the small campaign contributions they can afford. Two important ways to do that are to provide incentives for small contributions and to make them easy to execute.

A new proposal before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) would make it easier for ordinary citizens to become small donors by allowing text contributions.

Political campaigns have harnessed technological change for decades—and not always for the best. Robert Caro described how Lyndon Johnson used a helicopter to fly around Texas during his Senate campaign in the 1940s, reaching more voters face-to-face and usherinCreateg in a new era of even more money-driven elections. TV placed a premium first on good looks and calm debating skills (Nixon's sweaty upper lip), and then on 30-second ads that agitate more than educate.

But, more recent campaigns have used new communications technologies to democratize the political process.  Howard Dean's campaign rode a wave of online "meet ups" to a surprising Democratic primary surge; and then Barack Obama took online organizing and small donor fundraising to a whole new level—creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to feel ownership over a political campaign and raising record sums in the process.

In addition to online organizing, though, the Obama campaign put an unprecedented focus on text messaging—even announcing Joe Biden's selection as the VP candidate by text. The campaign understood that text communications provide two key advantages. First, texts are a dominant form of communication for young people. Second, they are immediate—someone can pull out her phone and text in response to an advocacy appeal in real time, rather than having to go home to a computer and remember later to pull up a website.

Advocacy campaigns have taken advantage of text messaging to build lists and solicit donations for years. Now the FEC is considering proposals to allow people to contribute to candidates and political organizations through text messaging. The proposal is one of the few related to political campaigns that has garnered widespread support from both political operatives and pro-democracy reform groups, including Demos.

That's because it's a win-win.  

Candidates, parties, and political groups can turn a great speech at a rally into instant campaign funds. More important, ordinary citizens—and especially young people—have another tool to make their voices heard and counter-balance the big money flowing into our political system from millionaires and special interests.

This won't be a panacea. Neither is the internet—we shouldn't forget that even Barack Obama raised nearly half of his funds from a small minority of wealthy people who can afford to give $1000 or more.  

We need to recapture the First Amendment from a renegade Supreme Court, improve disclosure, provide candidates with public funding to help them compete (like advocates are currently pushing for in New York), and more. But, text giving is a great step worth taking. The FEC is likely to consider the issue at its next open meeting on June 7th. It should use this chance to make small political contributions easier to give and get for citizens and campaigns."