Politico’s Victoria McGrane wrote a piece that got my attention about a new Web site that might help congressional lawmakers stay in touch with their constitutents. The site, GradeGov.com, is still in production, but is supposed to launch next week. It has as its motto: "They work for you. Remind them." The site's goal is to give average Americans a means through which they can have their views reach lawmakers without going through the filter of newspapers, pundits, pollsters or paid staff. This sounds all well and good.
GradeGov.com will be designed to allow users to grade individual congressional lawmakers' performance, write letters and read others, and help users find and follow lawmakers. The site will require users to log in and provide their ZIP code, among other information, so lawmakers can tell where the users that has graded them lives (i.e., whether they are a constituent or not).
After reading McGrane’s article, several of us here at Sunlight put our heads together in order to suggest what we hope is helpful advice. Here are some of our thoughts and questions:
As the article says, the site's target community is "average voters" with an overall "nonpartisan" bent. With the outliers of obviously corrupt/incompetent lawmakers aside, there is no consensus in American politics of how to rate politicians. For aggregate evaluation to succeed, there must be some general idea of what "good" and "bad" are.
The site will require users to log in and provide their ZIP code, among other information, so lawmakers can tell when a grade comes from one of their own constituents. How is the site going to verify that a voter lives in a particular district?
McGrane writes that one of the GradeGov.com’s goals will be to help solve the problem of constituent voices being drowned out by countless polls. How can this be accomplished by adding another poll? At best it'll be briefly embraced for its novelty, then eventually consigned to the same level of attention given to other forms of constituent communication. It sounds to us to be destined to be an unscientific poll over sampling the demographics that use the Internet most heavily. We already have quite a few of those.
The in district/out of district ratings idea is interesting, but the political science result that people love their representatives and hate everyone else's is sufficiently strong that we'd be surprised to see much deviation from it for legislators who aren't already indicted.
In some ways it sounds as if Gradegov.com will have a lot of overlap with what OpenCongress already is doing, such as gathering ZIP codes during registration and displaying the average rating from all OpenCongress users on each individual lawmaker's page. OpenCongress also provides some district-specific information, including how constituents rate a member.
With all this said, I'll look forward to seeing the GradeGov.com in action.