Blessed by the financial success of selling his TV streaming startup to an entertainment company called Rovi for nearly $40 million in 2011, Bart Myers asked himself a grown-up question: If I could do anything I want with my career, what would that be? What came next weren't dreams of a Costa Rican bed-and-breakfast or fixing up vintage cars. Myers instead gravitated to a world of drudgery and dysfunction. He turned to politics.
What caught Myers' attention were the things just below the surface: abysmal voter turnout, enormous amounts of campaign money, and an unusually high re-election rate for incumbents. People had been shoved to the sidelines of their own government.
Through Countable, a mobile app that connects voters with their lawmakers, Myers hopes to place informed and impassioned citizens back at the center of American politics.
At the end of this week, Countable will send its 2 millionth email to Congress, a core feature of the app, and a milestone achievement the company believes demonstrates its promise. After an initial sign-up, individuals are presented with a stream of issues that are tied to bills currently before the House and Senate. "Does Congress Need to Reject the Iran Nuclear Agreement?" reads one. "Should the U.S. Ban Abortions After 20 Weeks of Pregnancy?" asks another. A person can read a plain-language summary of the bill, arguments for or against the legislation, and vote "yea" or "nay." The vote that's cast can then be sent, along with a personal message, to an individual's elected representatives. This is one way Myers, Countable's CEO, believes lawmakers can be held accountable.
"It's grand, but it's a simple statement," Myers told BuzzFeed News. "I want to be able to see if my representatives in government actually represent me. And if they don't, who does?"
Countable aims to turn governance into a daily conversation between constituents and representatives, replacing what's become a stilted, halting relationship between Americans and Capitol Hill that's consummated once every two, four, or six years. The mobile app is intended to educate people on the issues and turn voter interest into action. The startup also keeps individuals up to speed on important bill updates and connects them with like-minded voters and representatives aligned with their political beliefs.
"There really hasn't been a civil place that represents both sides of the political issues that people are passionate about that's worked," Myers said. Stripped of its advocacy parts, Countable functions like a hyper-tailored news service, one that's infatuated by political disagreements, but strives to be nonpartisan. The app wants real people to discuss the issues that concern them with other real people, instead of being clobbered by talking points and talking heads. One way Countable hopes to mitigate the risk of injecting bias into its issue summaries is to feature opposing views written by users themselves. But the novel service that Countable offers is decoding the jargon-soaked language of legislation and directing the hostility or support of voters to their representatives.
Reading up on a law, following its development on the news, and verifying how your representative has voted on it is an "extremely uncomfortable process," said Myers — but it's fundamental to the functioning of government. "As a grand vision goes, can we chip away at that?"
So far, Countable has raised $1.2 million from angel investors, Myers said — mostly from friends in the tech community who believe in the idea. A little over a year since its launch, the civic startup counts 100,000 registered users, with claimed active monthly users that range from 50–100% of that total. (For an imperfect but ballpark comparison, Sean Parker's Brigade, another tech-politics startup, tallied 13,000 users for an early test version of its app. Brigade is currently invitation-only.)
For Myers, the swelling community of Countable voters is proof that his company is onto something. And he's getting validation from congressional offices, too. "They notice us because they are getting so many messages from us," Myers said. Rather than conditioning Beltway staffers to ignore yet another form of automated lobbying — from calls to emails to social media — Myers said Countable eases the load of congressional offices inundated with voter correspondence. "In the last couple of months we've had a lot of inbound interest from both sides of the aisle," he said. By organizing voters' concerns around specific bills, Countable gives congressional offices a chance to preempt criticism and engage with constituents.
In early brainstorming, Countable toyed with the idea of charging campaigns and advocacy groups for access to the company's user database. For a fee, they could pluck would-be volunteers and donors based on their mutual interests. But Myers said the company is now exploring new ways to generate revenue that will empower voters: organizing fundraisers for example, or charging a premium to send a physical letter to a senator. Not selling voters out is the paramount financial challenge. "Countable cannot be a place for the highest dollar to determine speech," Myers said.
What role should public deliberation play in political decision-making? Countable isn't satisfied with the status quo — a political landscape populated by technocrats and lobbyists, Wall Street bundlers and family dynasties. But wary of armchair policy experts, the startup isn't advancing a vision of direct democracy either. There's a wide chasm between full faith in an educated citizenry and utter reliance on political elites. Countable hopes to be that bridge. "If it's not this, it's an iteration on this," Myers said. "The idea that through your phone you'll be able to learn about and activate around the issues you care about, your lawmakers, your community."
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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