We like to think that this week, democracy got a little better.
A few days ago, we launched Democracy.io, a tool that lets people send an email to their congressional representatives, on any topic they wish, through one super-simple interface.
Right now, there are many paid advocacy tools that professional activism organizations can use to make sure their members’ voices are heard in Congress. But what about everyday people? If an individual person is concerned about a bill, or wishes Congress would take up some issue, there aren’t many tools available to help them communicate that desire to lawmakers. Instead, they have to hunt down individual congressional websites and fill out three different forms (two for their senators, one for their representative).
This gap in online advocacy needed filling. No organization—including us—should have a monopoly on communicating with Congress. Instead, we want anybody to be able to contact Congress, and we think the process should be smooth and simple. Democracy.io does just that. It’s built on the same free software that EFF uses for our own action center, and connects you to Congress through the open data set created by volunteer web developers across the world.
It’s also our way of paying it forward. When EFF needed a new action center, we put out a request for help. Over 100 volunteer web developers stepped up to help us map congressional forms, especially these five heroes. So it seemed fitting that we give something back to the world in return. That’s part of why Democracy.io isn’t just free software licensed under the AGPL—it’s also totally free to use.
Even as we’re giving this tool to the world, we recognize that there’s a lot of frustration with Congress. That frustration can even turn into feelings of hopelessness and cynicism. Frequently, even committed EFF supporters express a fear that engaging with Washington is a waste of time.
We share those frustrations. But not engaging with Washington has dire consequences. We can’t let lawmakers craft technology policy with little or no input from Internet users who are affected by those decisions. We don’t want elected officials working in a bubble, immune to the criticisms and concerns of their constituents. So instead of disengaging from DC, we’re working to make sure Internet users are getting through. We know those voices do make a difference because we remember, for example, how important constituents’ communications were in the fight against SOPA.
We also have heard concerns that lawmakers are already getting too many emails from constituents, and perhaps staffers can’t process them all. We’re skeptical of this. While members of Congress might not enjoy getting all these emails from constituents, it is better for democracy when we keep pressure on lawmakers to do the right thing. Frankly, Lawmakers should be uncomfortable when they’re crafting bad laws. They should have to face criticisms and complaints. Similarly, they should have a chance to hear back from the people when they do good work. And if it’s hard for lawmakers to process all the incoming data from constituents, then they should develop new systems to make sense of it all—not try to block out the voices of voters.
We are also excited about the potential impact of individualized messages. While advocacy organizations can help prompt many identical emails to members of Congress, Democracy.io helps orchestrate unique letters from individual people choosing to express their own views. The site isn’t designed to facilitate form letters. It’s built to cater to unique letters from each person using the site.
Democracy thrives when people’s voices are heard in the halls of Congress. The easier it is to do that, the better. It’s that simple.
The First Amendment of the United States protects "the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Democracy.io is a tool to help people exercise that crucial right. We hope you use it.