Can an App Do a Better Job Than a Politician?

Camilo Casas is running for local office, and he wants to change the relationship between elected officials and constituents. To do that, he built an app,, that puts the power in constituents' hands. (Photo: Snapshot from video)

Whatever your political persuasion, you'd likely agree that our voting system is flawed. It's harder than ever to exercise your civic duty. Many employers don't give workers time off to vote, and many people feel so distanced from the process that they don't bother to vote. Worse yet, there are still groups that actively try to keep other people from voting.

But even people who don't fact these hurdles choose not to vote. Why? I think it's often because they feel government is out of touch, and they either don't like or don't trust the system. The decisions made on their behalf — even at the local and state level — feel out of their control. Sure, you can vote for a candidate you believe in, but once the election is over, you never really know how that person is going to vote on a particular issue.

Camilo Casas, who is running to become a city councilmember in Boulder, Colorado, wants to change that. He built an app,, that will allow verified voters to weigh in on legislation directly. (That's him explaining in detail why he did it in the video below.) Casas says that if he's elected, he will cast his votes according to what people choose via the app. If more than 50 percent of the people in the community vote for or against an issue on the app, he'll use his vote to reflect the group's preference. Casas would only use his own judgment when it's needed to break a tie.

"I personally am convinced that when you have to lobby a constituency rather than an elected office, you will on average get more democratic and consensual outcomes," Casas told Motherboard.

Power to the people

Called "liquid democracy" or direct voting, the idea is to give people the power to vote on specific issues, engaging them more in the political process. This would have the advantage of giving individual citizens more power and incentive to pay attention to what's going on locally.

It could have myriad other impacts like minimizing the often lopsided impacts of companies and organizations that spend thousands to lobby on a specific issue that affects them. (Let's be honest; it's almost impossible for individuals to compete with full-time, professional lobbyists.)

Of course, there are pitfalls — majority rule and minority rights are an important part of our system of government, and direct democracy can't always protect minority groups. And this is new technology, so assuring security won't be easy when data is coming from thousands of individual smartphones. And what about people who don't have smartphones? How will they be included in the process?

But traditional voting as it stands now has at least as many potential pitfalls, so perhaps it's time to try something new.

Even if Casas doesn't win, he hopes his technology, which is free and open-source, will be used by others. Comparable ideas have been tried or tested in Australia, South America and Europe. And David Balkind, a candidate for public advocate in New York City, wants to use a similar app, NYSpeaks, to solicit direct voting from locals.

Of course, the government can't make you vote; the chief argument against compulsory voting laws is that not voting counts as speech, too, so requiring people to vote would stifle their First Amendment rights. But I think the only way to get more people to vote in the United States is to make voting easier and to make it more socially relevant. Vote-by-mail systems, common in many Western states, are one way to do this, but voting directly via smartphone would be even easier and feel more empowering, too.