A Grain Of Saul: How Simple Tech Advancements Could Save America's Government

We need to move democracy into the 21st century.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

In what many consider the greatest democracy in the world, there is a serious flaw in the system: the people of that democracy don't think they're being heard. 

If you're an American and you don't feel represented, you're not alone. And if you want to fix it, you ought to turn to the technological advancements of our time.

Today, 61 percent of Americans say that the Republican or Democratic parties don't properly represent them. According to a Pew poll from 2015, just 25 percent of Americans think their side is winning "on the issues that matter." 

In other words, most Americans feel like their voices are not being heard, and almost everyone feels like they are always losing when it counts. Regardless of your political affiliation, we can all agree those numbers deserve addressing.

To reform our government in a meaningful way, we should bring voting, lawmaking, representation, and government transparency into the 21st century.

Imagine a world in which you, the American citizen, could Skype into a House of Representatives debate on a law. Imagine and app that showed you a government representative's financial ties next to how he voted on related issues. Imagine being able to vote on questions for a town hall. Imagine a world where a representative could take a poll of his constituents on an issue he was voting on next week. Imagine getting an email or text that broke down exactly where your tax money went in the last year. 



People hand filing an income tax form.
People hand filing an income tax form. Shutterstock / LightGather

Take just one component of the government: the House of Representatives. Since 1913, the political body that is supposed to represent local districts on the federal level has gone virtually unchanged. Then, just like now, there were 435 members, despite the U.S. population more than tripling in the last 100 years.

That means — on average — for each member of that legislative branch, there are 7.4 million Americans. 

As those populations change, so, too, do their constituents' values and makeup. Simultaneously, the representatives spend more and more time in Washington, D.C., where their loyalties and priorities are often tied more closely to their political parties and their lobbyists than their constituents.

This is how you end up with the growing sentiment that people aren't being represented. That simple notion was a cornerstone of President Donald Trump's campaign, as he often railed against the "out of touch" and "elite" D.C. representatives, politicians, and bureaucrats who were running the country. 

So how could we use technology to fix something like the House of Representatives? 

For one, we could keep those representatives at home. Instead of spending their time in Washington, D.C., they could spend their time in the districts that elected them. Using video calls, emails, texts, and basically any other 21st century form of communications, representatives could just work remotely. 

Or, when they needed to be in Washington, D.C., they could bring their constituents with them. The government could live stream the legislative process to the American people. New laws could mandate five-minute video feeds after a law is passed where a representative is explaining what the law does and why they voted how they voted. Government officials could bring us into the dealmaking process that happens behind closed doors. All it would take is one bold representative with a love for transparency to start using his cell phone as the microphone that it is.

There has also been quite a bit of news about members of the House of Representatives skipping out on town hall meetings. Even well-known senators such as Marco Rubio have been dodging their constituents, saying he didn't want to be heckled or screamed at by activists.

So, what if we made town halls unavoidable? What if along with the standard town hall meetings, politicians had to host mandatory, virtual town halls every week and answer questions from their constituents online? 

Perhaps most importantly, we already have the technology and the information to make these hypotheticals a functioning reality. 

Just last week, two Texas congressmen — a Democrat and a Republican — ended up live streaming their road trip to Washington, D.C. while answering questions online. They called it a town hall on wheels. President Trump is well-known for using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram to communicate directly to his followers. Press Secretary Sean Spicer is now Skyping in journalists from all over the country to White House press briefings. DemocracyOS is an open source app that allows citizens to propose laws, debate their platform, and vote on actual policy. It's being used in democracies from Argentina to Tunisia. Even websites such as opensecrets.org publish the amount of money certain industries and companies give to politicians.

Shutterstock / Sandra_Violla

Of course, no issue illustrates the lack of representation more than the most obvious one: just how few Americans vote. 

In 2016, despite a divisive and controversial election, only 60 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in the election. That means more than a 100 million Americans who could have voted didn't. Of those, 2.4 million who did vote left the choice for president blank. According to the most recent Pew Research report, the United States ranks 31st among the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development when it comes to voter turnout. 

It's not like we are incapable of getting people to the polls. In 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had a contentious election that drew ballots from 83 percent of all eligible voters.

Tech could help solve the participation obstacle in a rather simple way — by making it possible for people to register and vote from their phones, computers or local libraries. 

Instead of forcing millions of people into taking hours out of their day to hit a local church or school, let them have the option to cast their ballots on a secure remote system in seconds. Americans are already ripe for the change. Gallup found that just 35 percent of Americans who voted in 2016 were "very confident" that their vote would be counted accurately. We rank 90th out of 112 countries polled when asked about the honesty of our election.

If most Americans feel like they're always losing, like they aren't being represented, like they can't even trust their vote to be counted, there's a problem. A big problem. 

Fortunately, we already have the tools to provide a solution. We just have to use them. 

Cover photo: ThomasDeco / Shutterstocks