Crunchies ceremony, I bumped into a man who is building an Internet version of the primaries. Called OnlinePrimary, it's an experimental project by Jim Edlin to create "a new, Internet-age way to do elections".During my current trip to the US, I've been following the US presidential primaries - it's hard not to, with the blanket coverage on CNN and in newspapers. Coincidentally while trying to hail a taxi after the
Jim Edlin has a long and distinguished history in the IT industry, including being the co-founder and first editor of PC Magazine. While giving my family and I a lift back to our hotel after the Crunchies (the taxis were non-existent that night!), Jim explained to me more about OnlinePrimary.
Jim Edlin describes OnlinePrimary on his website as "a personal project launched out of dissatisfaction with both the U. S. presidential primary election process and the current direction of using technology in elections." In a follow-up email conversation, he explained that "over the last year I have become increasingly distressed by a couple of things about how we do elections here in the US." The first is "the circus that [the] presidential primary system has become", such as states madly scrambling to get their primary earlier in the sequence so it will be more likely to affect the outcome. Also part of the circus is "horse-race-style media coverage that all-too-often becomes self-fulfilling prophecy." The second thing that prompted Edlin to start OnlinePrimary was "the disgraceful showing that technology (my field of endeavor) is making as it moves into the mainstream of the election process." He thinks that technology has failed in elections thus far:
"I don't understand why the straightforward process of casting and tallying votes should require special-purpose machines costing tens of thousands of dollars each, from companies so suspect of fraud and incompetence that they have to change their names (as Diebold Election Systems recently did) to hide from the shame."
Thinking big, Edlin decided to build a website "that would illustrate some alternate visions about both how US presidential primaries might work and about how technology might better support the election process more generally." He also wants the site to become a home for discussions and catalyst to action for new technology-based approaches to elections. As well as the onlineprimary.us domain, Edlin bought onlineconvention.us and onlineelection.us - indicating the broad plans he has.
What is OnlinePrimary?
At its core OnlinePrimary is a single, national, popular-vote primary - conducted using basic Web technology. Or at least it's an experiment in what such a system would look like, were it to become reality in the future. Edlin admits that there are "lots of questions to be worked out about these approaches", including security, auditability, ready accessability to all voters. Also he says it would take a lot of "political and legal gymnastics" to bring about changes like this to the US primaries system. But he says that OnlinePrimary is "a first crack" at building such a system.
In my tests, OnlinePrimary turned out to be a basic website form and still a little buggy (an SQL error popped up after I entered my selections). Here is what it looked like when I 'voted' for my Democratic choices:
There isn't a lot more to it at this time, although there are hints at the features to come. For example there is a "credibility rating", described as "based on a formula that takes into account how many ballots have been submitted from a particular internet address over various periods of time." Again, it's fairly basic. But I'm sure the technology will be enhanced as this project goes on.
The results section shows the promise of how real-time statistics could be used in an Internet primaries system:
Although the current site is relatively bare and there aren't many features, there's reason to think that OnlinePrimary could quickly ramp up. For one, Jim Edlin has been involved with technology mixed with politics before. In 1994 the company he co-founded, The HyperMedia Group (HMG), developed an interactive campaign video kiosk used by a candidate for California governor. And in 1996 HMG developed the California campaign website for Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. Edlin notes that "my personal involvement was small", but he is proud that his company HMG worked on those technology-enabled political projects.
Also Edlin notes that this is just the beginning of the experiment and that more features will be added.
OnlinePrimary is for now a part-time endeavor for Edlin, but it's an interesting experiment in how the Internet could be utilized to power the next generation of primaries and election systems. Tell us what you think below. How else could technology be used to improve the US political system? What other features would you suggest for the site?