Three years ago, we had a modest idea here at Personal Democracy Forum: that the internet could be a vehicle for transforming the presidential debates then underway. Instead of relying solely on journalists to determine the questions being asked of candidates; why not involve the public? Instead of giving the candidates 60 seconds to recite a canned answer, why not offer them unlimited time to prepare a serious response? And instead of letting candidates dodge questions during live debates, why not create a real feedback loop and let the public vote on whether they were satisfied with candidates' answers? Instead of debates tailored for (and constrained by) the demands of broadcast television, why not use the interactive and abundant nature of the internet to try something new and make debates far more participatory, content-rich, and accountable?
From that set of ideas was born 10Questions.com, a cross-partisan interactive platform for voter-candidate engagement that we are pleased to announce has been relaunched for the 2010 elections this week.
Here's how 10Questions got started: Like many people who were swept up by the 2008 campaign, we were struck by the public response to the CNN/YouTube debates. Tens of thousands of video questions were submitted by voters, and even though the rest of those debates were pretty conventional affairs--professional journalists selecting the questions, candidates sparring to score with pre-planned soundbites, everyone hoping for a live gaffe or semi-revealing moment--the mere inclusion of questions from YouTubers had the effect of doubling the ratings for those events.
Inspired by a group of online activists from the YouTube community, led by a high school teacher named David Colarusso, we decided to try a demonstration project. With the help of Colarusso, who had already built an interactive platform called CommunityCounts, we launched 10Questions.com in September of 2007. With a crosspartisan array of media partners, we asked the public to post questions to the presidential candidates, and invited everyone to vote them up or down. Then we invited all the candidates to post their answers, giving them all the time they needed to prepare serious answers. And then, to create a real feedback loop and try to incentivize the candidates to avoid dodging the questions, we invited the public to vote on whether they thought each candidate had actually answered each question.
In 2007, about 125,000 votes were cast on more than 300 questions submitted. The top 10 included questions on net neutrality, atheism, medical marijuana, warrantless wiretapping, corporate personhood, government spending, etc. Edwards, Gravel, Huckabee, Kucinich, and Obama each answered at least one of the top ten. Another 27,000 votes were cast judging their responses. By all accounts, 10Questions was successful in demonstrating that an open and interactive platform for voter-to-candidate-to-voter engagement could work, though in retrospect we believe it could have had a larger impact had we started sooner in the presidential campaign calendar. (You can view an archive of the 2007-08 site here.)
Now, with the support of Knight Foundation, we've just launched with a retooled version of 10Questions.com designed to allow anyone the ability to ask questions directly of many of the candidates seeking to represent them in the U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate, or as their state's governor.
The way it works is simple: anyone can post a question (video or text), anyone can vote those up or down (one vote per question per IP address), anyone can embed a question, a race, a state, or the entire country via a fully functional widget, on any website they want. To post or vote on a question, you just need a Google Account, as the site is powered by a souped-up version of the Google Moderator question platform (and for which we are grateful to our technology partners Google and YouTube.) No personal user information is being retained, though the site will allow anyone to view where questions and votes are coming from geographically, and to track the daily up-down voting on any question.
Between now and September 14, voters will have their say. Then we'll submit the top 10 questions (minus ones that are obscene or inappropriate) to the relevant candidates, and give them until October 14 to post their replies. After that we'll ask the public to again vote on whether they think the candidates actually answered the questions.
The 2010 midterms edition of 10Questions.com covers 43 of the most competitive races across the country, in 11 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In each state we're partnering with major media outlets--The Philadelphia Inquirer in PA, The Miami Herald in FL, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in GA, The Detroit Free Press in MI, the San Francisco Chronicle in CA, The Albany Times-Union in NY, etc.--plus Politico and PBS's Patchwork Nation. (A full list is here.)
These media outlets' websites are featuring the project on their news and opinion pages (See, for example, http://www.freep.com/politics&government and http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion), and their news and editorial teams will be covering 10Questions as a story, as well as featuring the user submitted questions and candidate answers in their election coverage.
We've already received candidate commitments to participate in the process from Barbara Boxer (D) and Carly Fiorina (R), both running to represent California in the U.S. Senate, in addition to other candidates across the country. Already, 110 questions have been posted to the site and votes are starting to pour in.
From a nonpartisan standpoint, this is a system that's built to reward substantive and thoughtful questions as well as responses ' in addition to the criteria for voting on answers, there's also no time limit to the responses from candidates, and the candidates are explaining their positions directly to voters, not exactly in competition with one another. Instead of "gotcha," got content?
It's also designed to allow voters, not media elites, to drive the conversation. Thus, the platform's widget was designed to enable any website, any blog, any post to embed the full functionality of the 10Questions experience. The widget is customizable by state, and is available at: http://www.10questions.com/2010/share. If you choose to participate, you don't have to send traffic to 10Questions.com; you can simply embed the questions or races that you are interested in on your own site.
The top-level goal of this experiment is to fundamentally alter the culture of political debate in America, to definitively move it away from glorifying sound bites over substance. We strongly believe that providing citizens a direct, unfiltered voice in the political debates will result in a more responsive, robust democracy for all.
As Dr. Ami Bera (D), running to represent California's 3rd Congressional District and a participant in 10Questions, recently said, 'Now is not the time for the politics of division, but for a clear exchange of ideas on how we move forward as a region, state and nation. Interactive media presents a great opportunity to open a dialogue about the issues Americans face every day.'