More than a year ago, I published an election methods library called RubyVote. Interest in the library surpassed any of my expectations: I know of at least one startup using the library heavily in their core business and a number of fun sites, like Red Blue Smackdown, that are using it as well. The point of course, was to make complex but superior election methods accessible in all sorts of places where people were making decisions suboptimally. It its own small way, it seems to have succeeded enormously.
Over the last year, I’ve been asked by a variety of people if they could use RubyVote for their own organizational decision making — tasks like electing leadership of a student group or members of a non-profit board of directors. Since RubyVote was just a library without a UI of its own, I had to tell them "no." I caved in eventually and got to work on a quick and dirty web-based front end to the library.
That project grew into Selectricity which is a primarily web-based interface to a variety of different election methods and voting technologies. You can currently try out quickvotes which can be created in half a minute and voted on in a quarter but which bring all of the power of preferential voting technologies to bear on very simple decisions. Prompted by Aaron Swartz, I also built a mobile phone version that’s lets you send a short email or SMS to create or vote in a election.
For those that follow research in voting technologies, there’s not a lot of new stuff here. What’s new is that this project, unlike the vast majority of voting technologies, is interested in the state of the art for everyone but governments. Clearly government decisions are important but they’re one set of decisions, usually only once a year. Selectricity is voting machinery for everything and everyone else.
It was announced in a variety of news outlets today that Selectricity was selected for grant from mtvU and Cisco as part of their Digital Incubator project. As part of that, I’m going to be working with some other voting technology experts to bring tools for auditable elections, cryptographically secured anonymity, and voter verifiability to the platform (I have only rudimentary functionality today). There are a couple people who will be joining me on the project this summer and we will building out what I hope will be an extremely attractive platform for better every-day decision-making.
More than the grant though, I’m excited about the visibility that use by MTV will bring to the project. Most of all though, I’m just excited about more free software and more (and more accessible) democratic decision making. My adviser Chris Csikszentmihályi put it well:
One of the big arguments against preferential voting, or new voting technologies, is the fear that they would disenfranchise the average person who doesn’t yet understand how they work. Certainly, making all voting technologies open source is critical, but the issue of familiarity is worth considering. We’re hoping that MTV — and eventually American Idol — will move their voting over to Selectricity, allowing it to work as both a technical tool but also pedagogically, training future voters. Why not integrate democratic processes into all your software and communications tools? Why not use the best democratic processes available, so long as they’re available to everyone?