Designing Democracy

PollVault’s principles for empowering the people

I recently came across Joi Ito’s presentation on the MIT Media Lab’s principles for innovation in the AI (After Internet) world. As the founder of a new democracy server call PollVault whose aim is to make participation in democracy simpler and more accessible to all, I found these principles very resonant with my own thinking. Here is an explanation of how we implement Ito’s design principles at PollVault.

Resilience over strength

We chose to built PollVault using the latest agile development technology in order to prototype quickly, iterate rapidly, and make small pivots with ease. Developed in Python/Django and running in the cloud with Heroku, PollVault benefits greatly from the flexibility of our architecture.

Pull over push

PollVault’s social network grows using a pull model where invitations are extended to potential advisors rather than to followers. In essence, voters ask their better-informed peers, “Can you help me with my ballot?” and lend an open ear, something sorely needed in the current morass of tweets and posts. We call this discriminate listening vs indiscriminate speaking which prevails today.


Risk over safety

The old adage that admonishes us to avoid discussions about religion and politics is a recipe for playing it safe, socially, with dangerous underlying consquences for the culture. We believe that the greater the flow of information, the faster the collective learning of the group; at the same time, we respect the spirit of the saying: passionate disagreements historically have arisen over these topics in particular. PollVault creates a safe place to take political risks by hosting conversations between citizens and their chosen advisors — conversations which may take the form of passionate, yet respectful, disagreements.

Systems over objects

Voters historically have relied on printed campaign pamphlets and election guides to inform themselves about candidates and propositions. PollVault replaces these static objects with a dynamic interactive system whereby voters communicate directly with candidates, advocacy groups, and each other to create a political dialogue where before, moneyed monologue prevailed. As a vertical social network aimed at strengthening democracy, PollVault is vibrant and alive.

Compasses over maps

One voter guide = a map. One hundred voter guides = a compass. On PollVault, voters use their social intelligence and history of trust to select the individuals and organizations who will best inform them in a way that reflects their values. These chosen advisors will often disagree on the particulars, however, and this creates a fascinating opportunity for further research into the differing choices and the values behind them. Ultimately, the voter is left to chart a course with the weighted guidance of these hand-picked voices.

Practice over theory

There is no better way to ascertain the will of the people than to ask them directly. PollVault, at heart, is a tool to collect the actual voices and choices of the electorate rather than inferring them. Technology is finally sufficiently advanced that we can allow every individual to participate in the democracy in real time. Rather than theorizing about what the people want, we give them a practical way to tell us, en masse.

Disobedience over compliance

Partisan politics all too often oversimplify and lump together issues that deserve independent reflection. PollVault encourages fracturing of the issue space into discrete topics, and healthy sampling from the smorgasbord of opinions on all sides. Straight-ticket voting, borne of a lack of nuanced information about all choices, is compliance. Thoughtful selection of the best ideas from across the aisle is healthy and essential disobedience.

Emergence over authority

On the spectrum of representative democracy to participatory democracy, PollVault favors the latter — with a twist. Citizens have neither the time nor the inclination to become experts on all of the issues and candidates presented to them, and so they defer some choices to select trusted others. Over time, the most reliable domain experts gain real social and political capital via their followerships. These are leaders who emerge from among the grass roots, rather than top-down designated authorities. This is perhaps the most exciting promise of PollVault: power which accrues based on the fidelity of ideas.

Learning over education

Ito doesn’t like the word education, “Education something that is done to me; learning is something I do to myself.” PollVault is first and foremost a platform for self-directed learning. We help voters answer these three key questions: 1) What are the important issues facing our democracy? 2) Who can best help me understand and make choices about these issues? 3) What are the most robust arguments put forth by proponents and opponents of these issues? The impetus to collect information and use it to make more informed choices is the hallmark of the PollVault user.

Many thanks to Joi Ito and his team at the MIT Media Lab for offering some structure and guidance for our thinking about designing these new tools for democracy. It seems that PollVault has its own “trusted advisors”. May we continue to learn from them and put their theory into practice in the service of all.

~Nolan Love, PollVault Founder


PollVault Chosen for Points of Light Civic Accelerator

From 240 civic startups nationwide, 15 have been selected to participate in the third cohort of the Points of Light Civic Accelerator program, which seeks to incubate for-profit  and nonprofit ventures aimed at creating positive social change.  PollVault is one, and we’re delighted.

Here’s the press release:

Founder Nolan Love attended the first session in Atlanta last week, and returned to San Francisco energized and inspired:

“I’m feeling a potent combination of pride and humility right now.  Pride in how much our team has been able to accomplish in the name of democracy with so few resources; and humility at the recognition that so many other talented teams are working just as hard under equally pressing conditions, and are succeeding in bringing fascinating products and services into being for the betterment of society.  There are a lot of truly good people putting blood, sweat & tears into so much more than simply accumulating wealth, many further along the path of social innovation, and we have a great deal to learn from their experience.  I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

CivicX teams engaged in a curriculum focused on refining business models, identifying strengths and weaknesses in their respective startups, learning effective modes of networking and customer discovery, and crafting compelling pitches for potential investors.

The second session of the three part program takes place in Silicon Valley in mid-November when the teams will gather once again to share how they have implemented their learning, and further their growth.

Rock the Vote Comments After the Election

Rock the Vote HomeRock the Vote HomeRock the Vote Home

Rock the Vote made sure every one of the million voters that registered to vote through us this year – and registrants from previous years too – had all the information they needed to cast a ballot. From an online Election Center that helped more than 300,000 unique visitors find out where and when to go, and what to bring, to a mobile program that allowed voters to text “where” to RTVOTE and get their polling place and hours, to sharing ballot information through a partnership with PollVault, Rock the Vote provided Election Day answers.

Young people once again increased their share of the electorate and played a major role in the presidential election. According to national exit polls, the share of votes cast by those under 30 increased from 18% in 2008 to 19% in 2012, and those voters favored the President by a margin of 60% to 36%. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released an exclusive turnout estimate yesterday showing that 22-23 million young Americans (ages 18-29) voted in yesterday’s presidential election – that’s at least 49% – maintaining the youth turnout levels of 2004 and 2008 and creating a new normal for participation as the Millennial generation enters the electorate.

CIRCLE also reports that “at least 80 electoral votes depended on the youth vote,” citing that voters under the age of 30 were the deciding factor for President Obama’s victories in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The impact of this large and diverse generation of young people within the electorate is now undeniable. And it just proves that any campaign that ignores young voters does so at its own peril.

Press Release from Election Night:

Young Voters Grow Their Share of Electorate & Play Critical Role in Re-Electing President Obama — Youth Vote Share 19%; up from 18% in 2008
Full release available here

Press Statement:

“Yesterday, young Americans showed up, voted, and made it clear: they are the generation that will take our country forward.”
Full statement available here

Links to CIRCLE data for additional information:

Early Exit Polls: Youth Represent 19% of Voters, Up 1 Point from 2008

At Least 80 Electoral Votes Depended on Youth

Youth Turnout: At Least 49%, 22-23 Million Under-30 Voted

Read full Rock the Vote statement, here.

PollVault Users Share their Love for PollVault

Jamie, Chicago:

The more useful parts of the app are finding out what different orgs think–who they are endorsing. I think that’s brilliant!

I thought the preview was really helpful for the public questions as I didn’t realize these would be on the ballot. I was grateful for the heads up.

Also, I think it’s really interesting to potentially share who you vote for. We don’t do that much in this country but maybe our political debate would improve if we did.

Anonymous User Feedback:

This website is terrific! I was searching the web to find out if my previous voting location was still valid and could not find any information until I looked on this site. The information here is great!!

Keep up the great work!!

Young Professionals Initiative Reflects on PollVault

By Erin Roberts

Back in September, the Young Professionals Initiative of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs hosted a program on “the Power of the Youth Vote” with Heather Smith, Founder of Rock the Vote. In my remarks from stage that night, I stressed the importance of thinking beyond just the presidential election and making sure one reads up on local office elections, as that is where citizens can often see immediate impact in their daily lives.

It is incredible how many young voters don’t realize they can take information to the polls with them (and that they are not obligated to memorize their ballot votes). I think a tool like PollVault is an extremely valuable asset to young voters by engaging them in a very current and familiar way on their smartphones. My hope is that technology like this will result in a more informed and engaged voter community.

Erin E. Roberts is an independent expert focused on civic engagement of the next generation. She heads the Young Professionals Initiative at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

PollVault feature in Boise Weekly

Events like Halloween, Christmas and the Super Bowl are usually celebrated with a swirl of apps. Why should Election Day be any different? Here are some of our favorite politics-in-your-pocket apps. Some are cool, some are wonky but all are useful.

See Your Ballot is a Web-based app crafted by and Possibly the most utilitarian of them all, See Your Ballot asks for your address and displays the full slate of presidential candidates (and third-party candidates), statewide propositions and constitutional measures. It also allows you to build your own adviser teams from people or organizations you trust.

The New York Times’ Election 2012 app is available for iPhone and Android and offers an exhaustive library of polls, editorials and videos, along with the Times’ best-in-the-business coverage.

Politwoops, another Web-based app, is a bit of fun, chronicling all the tweets that politicians wish they had never sent (and thought they had deleted).

Ad Hawk, available for iPhone and Android, is a great little gadget that helps you identify who is behind those nasty political ads as they air. Hold your smartphone up to the TV or radio and Ad Hawk identifies that silly super PAC that’s clogging your entertainment pleasure.

7 Voting Resources You Should Know Before Heading to the Polls (frogloop feature)

7 Voting Resources You Should Know Before Heading to the Polls

DateMonday, November 5, 2012 at 04:35PM | by AuthorAllyson Kapin

After over an intense year of campaigning for the 2012 elections, citizens all across the U.S. will be casting their votes tomorrow on November 6th. If you are looking for last minute resources around the election, we have got you covered.

1. The Election Protection Hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683), will be answered live from trained volunteer on National Voter Registration Day from 9:30 AM-8 PM Eastern. Voters can call the hotline to ask questions about voter registration, early voting, requesting an absentee ballot, or any another voting related question.

2. Our Vote Live: If you experience problems while you are at the polls, you can report them directly to the Our Vote Live website, which will map and respond to voting inquiries and incidents. You can also use the hashtag #OVlReport.

3. PollVault: There are two very cool features to PollVault. 1. Type in your zipcode and it will show you exactly what the ballot looks like for your state and neighborhood. 2. Select people and organizations you trust and see their positions on issues and candidates. Then you can either choose to keep your voting preferences private or share them with your friends, family, and collegues via social media.

4. FiveThirtyEight: If you are a political junkie and love to follow the latest poll numbers, then FiveThirtyEight should be bookmarked as one of your most favorite websites. Nate Silver who founded the site has a stellar repuation for predicting all the races.

5. My Vote, My Right Voter Protection Site: Learn about voter ID laws and steps to take to protect your right to vote tomorrow.  

6. Student Voting Guide by State: Students are an important demographic in the 2012 election. The Brennan Center for Justice provides an excellent resource for students and their rights to vote while they are at college and living out of state.

7.HeadCount: Need election info like where is your polling place, ID requirements, verify your registration status? Head on over to and click on your state.