Sunday, October 9, 2011


The following GUEST OPINION appeared in the Spokesman-Review on October 9, 2011, page B9

A guide of, by and for voters

By Lance Bennett,
Ruddick C. Lawrence
Alan Borning,
and Diane Douglas

     As elections matter more, voters seem to become more frustrated and overwhelmed with the process.  And this is not an ordinary "off year election."  The Secretary of State has listed more than 35 state, county and local ballot measures.  What interests are behind these measures?  What are their merits? how best to get involved and make good voting choices?
     This year voters across Washington have a unique opportunity to share their knowledge, listen to the other side, and contribute their information to the mix.  The Living Voters Guide is available online at  to help people consider their choices and debate the issues with each other in a civil fashion, without the hype and hyperbole of campaign ads and polarizing media talk shows.
     This technology was deployed successfully on a smaller scale in 2010, drawing nearly 9,000 participants who looked through the information contributed by fellow citizens and created more than 2,500 individual pro and con lists to help them decide on the ballot measures.
     What became clear from this trial is that people want to listen to and try to persuade each other without resorting to the shrill rhetoric that dominates much public discussion today.  nearly half of the personal lists of points that people put together included one or more points written by others with a quite different opinion on the measure.
     This year, the Living Voters Guide will be available to all Washington voters with county and local measures on tap as well as statewide ones.  (Typing in your ZIP code to the system will let it present the measures relevant for you.)  CityClub, of Seattle, the University of Washington's Center for Communication & Civic Engagement, and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering have collaborated to produce this Web-based resource to advance digital democracy in Washington state.
     With funding from the National Science Foundation, we developed an online resource to promote community discourse and deliberation on the critical ballot measures before Washington voters this November.  this civic technology is inspired by three goals: restoring trust in our neighbors; learning to trust our community's wisdom; demonstrating trust in Jefferson's claim that an informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.
     Our Living Voters Guide invites all Washingtonians to discuss these vital ballot measures together, to explore one another's positions, and to build a personal, customized platform that will inform their final votes.
     This voters guide is co-created by everyone who participates.  It evolves as you and neighbors across our state consider the trade-offs for each measure.  It requires participants who contribute shared points to pledge that they will not make personal attacks on others but focus on the issues before us.  It invites everyone to wrestle with both the pros and cons of the ballot measures in a deliberative path toward decision-making.
     The decisions facing Washington citizens these days are often confusing, yet they can profoundly affect the quality of our communities and our personal lives.  That's why it is imperative that we consider them carefully, with due deliberation and with the benefit of community wisdom in a forum that is nuanced, pluralistic and collaborative.  We need to come together as citizens to explore our electoral choices - without accusations, rancor and acrimony - knowing that we're all going to share the profit and loss generated by our collective decisions on Nov. 8.
     Please use and share the Living Voters Guide with your family, friends and neighbors across Washington.  Hang out at the website like you would a public park - a place where you can engage and explore the community around you.
     We hope it will inspire public trust in one another.  We offer it as our own election initiative to enable citizens' power and shared responsibility for making our democracy work.  If we are to reclaim a citizen-centered democracy, and to rebuild public trust and civil discourse, we're going to have to do it ourselves at the grass roots.

Lance Bennett is professor of political science and Ruddic C. Lawrence is professor of communication and director of the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement at the University of Washington; Alan Borning is professor of computer science and engineering at UW; and Diane Douglas is executive director of CityClub in Seattle.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Keeper of the Spring

     This story has been attributed to the late Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the United States Senate.

     There was once an old man who lived high above an Austrian village along the eastern slopes of the Alps.  The old gentleman had been hired many years earlier by a young town councilman to clear away the debris from the pools of water up in the mountain crevices that fed the lovely spring flowing through their town. With faithful, silent regularity, he patrolled the hills, removed the leaves and branches, and wiped away the silt that would otherwise have choked and contaminated the fresh flow of water.

     The village soon became a popular attraction for vacationers. Graceful swans floated along the crystal clear spring, the mill wheels of various businesses located near the water turned day and night, farmlands were naturally irrigated, and the view from restaurants was picturesque beyond description.

     Years passed. One evening the town council met for its semiannual meeting. As they reviewed the budget, one man's eye caught the salary figure being paid the obscure keeper of the spring. Said the keeper of the purse, "Who is the old man? Why do we keep him on year after year? No one ever sees him. For all we know, the strange ranger of the hills is doing us no good. He isn't necessary any longer." By a unanimous vote, they dispensed with the old man's services.

     For several weeks, nothing changed.  The village went about with its business as usual.

     By early autumn, the trees began to shed their leaves. Small branches snapped off and fell into the pools, hindering the rushing flow of sparkling water. One afternoon someone noticed a slight yellowish-brown tint in the spring. A few days later, the water was much darker. Within another week, a slimy film covered sections of the water along the banks, and a foul odor was soon detected. The mill wheels moved more slowly, some finally ground to a halt. Swans left, as did the tourists. The economy of the village was in serious peril.  Clammy fingers of disease and sickness reached deeply into the village.

     Quickly, the embarrassed council called a special meeting. Realizing their gross error in judgment, they rehired the old keeper of the spring, and within a few weeks, the veritable river of life began to clear up. The wheels started to turn, and new life returned to the hamlet in the Alps.

Some thoughts by Bonhoeffer & Neimoller

"It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day many Christians have suffered with him."
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letters and Papers from Prison.

First they came for the communists,and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
-- Martin Niemoller