"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of
civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
- Thomas Jefferson
Google's blog post about election related searches mentions that Google is seeing "a lot of searches for things like... [jerry brown wikipedia]." This tells us something that we already knew - a lot of people are currently using Wikipedia to research political candidates. What is even more interesting about this datapoint is that we're talking about California, a state that has one of the most complete and widely used official voter information guides in the country. This indicates that even the best official voter guides may not include all of the information that voters are looking for when they make political decisions, and that Wikipedia offers voters something else that they want. Possibly an independent perspective? Regardless, this fact helps build the case for Wiki Voter Guide.
Wiki Voter Guide makes several positive contributions to this existing reality. First, we are arming people with information about how to read Wikipedia carefully, and providing them with links to tools like WikiTrust that can help them detect and avoid vandalism. We are also making it easier for everyone to locate the Wikipedia pages about the candidates that will appear on their ballot. The accuracy of Wikipedia articles is a function of the size and health of the community of people who contribute to them. By illuminating all of the relevant articles about political campaigns in Wikipedia, we can help direct potential contributors to articles in need of their attention, thus helping to ensure that those articles get the attention they need. In time, we hope to use this site to organize and equip people who want to make Wikipedia a useful political resource by providing them with the information they need to do that job effectively.
In the end we believe that this website can improve the reliability of the information that voters are already getting from Wikipedia.
One of the items on Georgia ballots this November provides a perfect illustration of why Wiki Voter Guide is a necessary addition to the array of information resources available to voters in this state. The first Amendment to the Georgia Constitution that will appear on the ballot asks voters to answer the following question:
"Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to make Georgia more economically competitive by authorizing legislation to uphold reasonable competitive agreements?"
The wording of this ballot item has been the subject of some controversy regarding how accurately it conveys the actual purpose of the amendment. The Savannah Morning News called the wording "fraudulent," and the Athens Banner-Herald called the wording "outright misleading." You can read more about this amendment by clicking on this link to Ballotpedia's page, which includes links to several different viewpoints as well as full text of the legislation. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the accusations, there is a reasonable and objective argument that voters ought to understand what they are voting for, and that in order to do that it may be important for voters to have access to complete background information about the meaning of a ballot item and not just the text of the question that is going to be asked on the ballot. Where should voters turn for that information?
Like many states, Georgia does not have an official Voter Information Guide that provides people with these kinds of answers. However, there are a number of private parties who attempt to fill the gap. Many newspapers and interest groups publish their own voter guides, but these are editorial in nature. They make clear recommendations instead of merely providing factual information and leaving the decision up to voters.
I know of one guide that is both extremely comprehensive and carefully objective, the voter guide that is compiled by the League of Women Voters of Georgia and published by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. This is by far the best resource for voters in Georgia that I have come across. It provides a detailed, objective view of every contested race on my ballot. As a general tool for researching candidates it is far more useful than Wiki Voter Guide is today, as Wikipedia does not have comprehensive coverage of local candidates nor does it speak with the authority and objectivity of this guide.
However, coverage of the first Constitutional Amendment that will appear on Georgia ballots in the AJC's version of the League of Women Voters Guide leaves something to be desired. They only provide the text that will appear on the ballot with no additional information. Why? I'm not sure. One possibility is that it's hard to do this objectively. Most of this voter guide is created by sending questionnaires to the campaigns, asking them to explain their political positions in their own words, but you can't do this with ballot measures because they are supported and opposed by a wide array of different interest groups. Who should speak for each side? Its hard to sort that out fairly.
You could provide the full text of the legislation, but that's not always practical. Many ballot measures refer to extremely complicated laws that would very difficult for voters to parse and understand.
The League of Women Voters does have a document on their website providing information about each ballot item. However, this document doesn't provide both pro and con positions for all of the Amendments and because this information is not being disseminated in the AJC's version of the guide it's not clear how many voters have seen it.
It's clear to me that something more is needed. Perhaps the best thing would be an official voter information guide published by the state government and modeled after the guide that is published in California. But, we don't have that. Creating it would be very expensive, and frankly, I imagine that Georgia is not the only place in the United States where these kinds of problems exist.
Wiki Voter Guide provides a new way to approach this problem. It's less expensive, but it's also less accessible. Its primary advantage comes from the collaborative process that is used to compose articles in Wikipedia and, in this case, Ballotpedia. This process allows us to develop an objective view of something like a ballot referenda item without having to find a single individual who can speak about the issue objectively. Although today the coverage of political campaigns in Wikipedia is not comprehensive enough, this website shines some light on the gaps and provides a structure that can direct people who want to contribute toward articles that need more work.
It is my hope that Wiki Voter Guide can galvanize the support needed to fill those gaps, because I think it's clear that voters in many states do not yet have the information that they need to accurately express their interests on election day.
Added Ballot Referenda Items
Brief Introductory Video on YouTube
Presentation on Wiki Voter Guide and Campaign Finance Reform
Wiki Voter Guide Launched!