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?

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

Rebel with rather too many causes. And your host!

9 thoughts on “Selectricity”

  1. Awesome work Mako!  Congratulations on the recognition and publicity.  The power and mindshare from applying simple ideas in flexible, open ways like you’ve done is amazing.

  2. Apologies. The webapp code is not up yet. I’m trying to work out licensing issues. I really want to release it under the Affero licenses which, due to the GPLv3 process, is currently in flux. I’ll try to  get something sorted out in the next week or so.

  3. Hi.

    This project is very interesting and is something that could change the way democracy is practiced both on and off the internet. It is very important that it is able to deliver a wide variety of possible ways to vote and I hope you will try to be ambitious and inventive.

    I have a feature request:

    Software for voting should be able to handle more complex answers than yes or no, mostly because the people who have to carry out the decisions always have to decide what the vote meant. What in the text was rejected and what was accepted. This process is not democratic and is frustrating for every one, as conflicts arise as how the vote was to be understood.

    I propose a feature like the comment system in Word, where the voters mark which passages they support and which passages they reject. Then the voters can support the proposal as such but mark which parts they find problematic and the other way around. And if they could connect a short comment to their vote, the amount of information would be increased and the quality of the vote would be increased.

    With the use of such a tool proposals would not have to be reduced to very short and simplifying sentences. They could be able to contain more information and therefore give better guidance to the people carry out the decisions.

    But the more information the voters are allowed to project into the vote, the better the software that handles the statistics and text has to be. But perhaps other programs could handle the data… I don’t know.

    Best of luck from Denmark.


  4. Hi, that’s great news! Congratulations.

    I hope that MTV is really committed to embrace the floss world, and I wonder how good it will be if they are also willing to release their eventual improvements… Do you know something about it ?

    cheers and congratulations once more.
    Giovani Spagnolo

  5. Giovani,

    MIT will not be writing code. They will only being paying me to produce code and I will retain the full copyright to the work. As a result, I am very confident that improvements will be free software.

  6. ————–
    Hi Mako, yeah that’s very good for the start… but what if they wanted to scale up the application and hire more people? Can they do that? Are they bounded  by a license (such as Affero GPL) to release their derivative web code? Or can they use the rubyvote gpl2 loophole to hide their improvements?

  7. I’ve said in an earlier comment on this page that I will be using the AGPLv2. In any case, using the GPL is still entirely free software — just as the BSD license license with no copyleft provision at all is entirely free.

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