Voting Sucks (or: what is constructive involvement?)

There are a number of sites now that invite “participation” by proposing or collecting ideas and having the “public” vote on those ideas.

The supposition here is that there is a politician somewhere just desperate to base decisions not on their own belief and intuition, not even on general surveys of public opinion, but to base decisions on the preferences of a self-selected group of people who invested enough time to hit an up or down arrow on a site.

In another post I’d like to offer another rational (but cynical) reason for building these voting systems, but for now I’ll take them at face value.

Take, for example, Stimulus Watch. This is a recently built site that has data on the projects proposed for the upcoming stimulus bill. It has a large list of projects with the money required for the project and the estimated number of jobs created. Where it gets interesting is that it also involves collaborative research, where people can post details about a proposal, and argue points for and against items. People have found newspaper articles, even apparently called the individuals involved in the proposals to get more information. Very useful!

The site has two other notable components: comments and voting.

Let’s look at a proposal that has received a surprising amount of attention: Doorbells. It currently is voted at -7858 and has 249 comments. I think this page is a good demonstration of the problem of shallow involvement.

Actually reading the proposal I think it’s quite reasonable. It’s a fairly small item (just about $100k), it’s job-to-cost ratio is quite good ($50k/job). The actual proposal is to install doorbells in a federally-funded elderly housing facility, including doorbells on the inside of units that the residents can use to call for help. Someone noted in the description that at $155/doorbell that it might be expensive, but honestly this seems reasonable to me depending on the details of the project. The whole proposal seems fine. To voters it’s apparently one of the worst proposals out there. To commenters… well, a few examples:

My doorbell is busted, can I get $100,000 to fix it?

Zing! In case you were wondering, this is about as funny as the comments get.

Doorbells?? Why is this called Stimulus? How is this going to help our economy? This is just more idiotic, wasteful government SPENDING. That is all the government knows how to do – spend our hard earned tax dollars (that they extort from each one of us) on projects that do not generate any revenue. Why can’t the government JUST focus on U.S. infrastructure and security? If they could leave everything else to the private sector, our taxes would be manageable and our economy would not be in this mess!

I am going to send this website to all of my friends that are just as irritated by all this HOAX as I am.

Important political analysis of how this fits into a larger context!  Of course probably this work would be performed by a private company, so technically the analysis is incorrect, but that probably wasn’t the point of the comment.

Individuals can buy doorbells for themselves if they want doorbells. No real jobs created.

Indeed, let the old people pull themselves up by their bootstraps!

Hey underprivileged, go to home depot and pay the $20 and spend the afternoon installing like the rest of us working folks. Put down the crack pipe and the 40 oz.

Fair and balanced! I can sense the country becoming post-racial right in front of us.

Of course I don’t (in any way) blame Stimulus Watch for the content of these comments. If I was genuinely offended or even bothered by these comments, it would be a sign that I hadn’t spent much time on the internet. It’s just disappointing… the voting and the comments distract from the good stuff Stimulus Watch is doing. It also means that in a page sorted by activity this stupid Doorbell debate hovers at the top while a huge number of other proposals remain empty and under-described. The voting in turn feeds nonsense indignation, instead of people actually coming up with a thoughtful analysis (and very possibly thoughtful indignation).

There’s tremendous potential if Stimulus Watch can bring together people to do research on these proposals and to help identify the best and worst proposals. But by engaging people in trivial ways I think it is working against itself. Even the Doorbell item could be usefully expanded. What kind of building are they installing doorbells into? Are there special requirements for the hardware or installation? But leaving a comment on that item would be useless, it will be lost in a stream of pointlessness.

Something more like Wikipedia might be a better model (even though Stimulus Watch actually uses the Wikipedia software as one of its components). The site already adopts Wikipedia’s standard of a neutral point of view. This represents a kind of consensus, achieved through iterations of editing. Discussion also exists, but in Wikipedia it is relegated to a secondary page. The discussion can also be edited, and is actually a bit awkward to participate in. Discussion is really for people that have tried editing but need further direct communication to move that forward. If it isn’t relevant to editing the main article, the discussion is useless and not appreciated. And there is no voting.  Let’s make more of that.