DAVIS, California – The condition of political affairs in the United States suffers from a severe deficiency in participation. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April 2014 showed that presidential election voter turnout for every age demographic below 65 years has steadily declined over the past five decades. The statistical dip was worst for the youngest class of voters, between the ages of 18 and 24, which was at a mere 50.9 percent in 1964 and dropped to a low 38 percent in 2012.
The creators of a mobile application called iCitizen for Android and iOS phones have set out to cure political apathy in America by making the process of staying informed easier and participation more accessible. iCitizen is one of few political mobile apps out there that directly engages users in government activity.
The public’s lack of enthusiasm is not totally unjustified, either. Many feel the individual vote has lost its fundamental value and reflects little more than a symbol of involvement rather than carrying any realistic weight. All the while, Americans occupy a culture that is increasingly over-saturated with information and riddled with daily distractions that take away from involvement in the actions of one’s government.
Regardless, voting – and participation in general – is one of the most valuable civic opportunities granted to Americans and the citizens of other democratic nations.
The underlying truth remains that a democracy is better off with greater participation numbers, better-informed participants and consistent participation – three points of improvement the app aims to make.
The iCitizen team approaches the voter deficit issue with optimism rather than criticism. They feel the solution lies in giving people the opportunity to participate on their own terms and in a way that genuinely interests them, especially the young voters with the most trouble making it into the voting booths.
The Borgen Project had a chance to sit down with Alex Schriener, the Citizen Engagement Manger at iCitizen, to learn more about the political mobile app and the wider scope of the organization.
iCitizen has three main functions. The first is essentially an issue queue on the home page, which is unique to each user and comprises what the makers call the user’s “political DNA.”
According to Schriener, “instead of getting bombarded with hundreds of issues [and]instead of having to read through the newspaper to find the articles about the things that you care about,” iCitizen will give its users the option to choose specific issues within their interest to appear in a stream on the app’s starting window.
For instance, if a user passionately cares about women’s rights, gun rights and any of the other 18 issues available to follow, iCitizen will curate a personalized news feed of articles pulled from all over the country on the app’s home page interface.
“It’s very streamlined,” said Schriener, “There’s nothing in the app that you haven’t selected as important to you.”
iCitizen does not reflect any particular agenda through the application. According to Schriener, the app will “allow people to engage in politics on their own terms,” and won’t try to “tell you what should matter.”
Another side of the application enhances the user’s relationship with their local representatives. After the user punches in their address (or simply their zip code), the list of state and federal officials making decisions on their behalf immediately become available to the user for information extraction and communication purposes.
Users will be able to view their representatives’ voting records, their campaign contributions, the committees they are on and bills that they are working on.
Participants can then notify, say Barbara Boxer of California, whether or not representatives agree with their stance on a standing environmental bill through multiple lines of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, email or a good old-fashioned phone call.
In another feature, iCitizen gauges participant opinions through polls they host on the app itself. That information is collected and shared directly with the representatives relevant to the issue.
In the end, “it’s a way for people to feel like they have a direct connection to the people they elected or didn’t elect, as the case may be, into office,” concluded Shriener.
Although nobody will likely be compelled to delve deep into every issue, the app covers the ones they care about extensively. Browsing the app gives users the opportunity to develop opinions on issues that are not so pressing to them as well.
For a democracy to work, all citizens require an appropriate venue to express their voice.
As an innovative mobile application, iCitizen has the opportunity to impact a large pool of young, potential voters with historically low participation rates and technologically immersed lifestyles. iCitizen Corp. is also partnered with Headcount.org who facilitate outreach programs at community events and music festivals to draw in young voters.
The application is extremely intuitive to use and easy to comprehend, does not contain any ads or other distractions and it is and always will be free. Regardless of one’s age, iCitizen can be one of the biggest tools for democratic involvement for any demographic.
– Edward Heinrich