By Charlie Warzel / @cwarzel
Marci Harris and PopVox couldn’t have chosen a better time to get involved with Congress. Seriously.
In case you haven’t been watching the bizarre kabuki going on between lawmakers and the rest of the world, we’ll fill you in real quick: According to the Washington Post-ABC News approval of Congress is at 13 percent. A record low. A Gallup poll from December clocked congressional approval at 11 percent, also a record low. In fact, Congress’ relationship with the American public has been so toxic that many are surprised the figures aren’t lower. Seriously, who approves of these guys? With frustrations and the stakes at an all-time high, DC-based PopVox looks like an increasingly invaluable tool.
PopVox, for those who don’t know, is a startup website designed to foster more effective and open communication between citizens and Congress. Just writing that phrase makes PopVox sound like an exercise in frustration, but Marci Harris, co-founder and CEO, and her team have had great success during a tumultuous time in politics where activism appears on the rise. We caught up with Marci Harris over the phone to learn a little more about the company and learned a lot about the country in the process.
Harris, like many on PopVox’s team was a former staffer on the Hill (formerly the Tax, Trade, and Health Counsel to Rep. Pete Stark), who couldn’t help but notice the flaws in the system of congressional communications. “One night I was at a dinner party with a few friends, talking with our co-founder, complaining about being a staffer and all the outside input and information that we had to deal with…we had a joint complaint session and I said I was actually thinking about a website that would make the information easier to get to…she and our friends said, ‘Well, do it!’
Harris left the Hill shortly after the healthcare battle ended in 2010 to found PopVox. The site soft-launched the day before election day 2010 and the team tinkered around, making improvements in the lame duck session, finally launching their beta release in January 2011 as the 112th Congress was sworn in. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Most users come to PopVox to make their voice heard on a particular bill, but as Harris notes, people usually don’t stop there. "You come in because you are really angry at a specific issue but as you look around you see other bills that are interesting."
While Harris and company could be taking advantage of the caustic environment between lawmakers and the American people, PopVox has no such aspirations. Instead, we found PopVox’s goals ambitious, refreshing, and generally just good for American democracy. In short, PopVox isn’t looking to further divide an already fractured nation, adding to the din of a disaffected populous, but instead to foster transparency, educate, and ultimately get some results. Harris notes to us that many of PopVox’s 70,000-plus users are engaging actively and learning interesting things about themselves in the process.
We just introduced a new feature called Congress Match (which allows the user to see how well a Representative lines up with your own personal views). We’ve gotten super positive feedback…and what is interesting is how much they are saying, ‘this guy agreed with me but i realize he doesn’t…it’s surprising how people’s perceptions didn’t align with where the representatives really were.
If used properly, PopVox can be a very powerful tool, one that could even help change the tone in Washington. “With almost every bill that comes in front of Congress… you like some, don’t like others…there is a moderating influence on PopVox because everything is available and you are asked to weigh in on things…it can help constituents to see how hard this job can be.” Now, that might sound like Harris is on Congress’ side. She’s not.
Both PopVox and Harris refuse to editorialize and remain fiercely non-partisan. In fact, PopVox remains neutral almost to a fault. “One of the biggest requests from users is, ‘can’t you put this in english?’ But there is almost no way you can provide analysis of legislation and do so in a neutral way. The language in these bills is so charged,” Harris notes. PopVox leaves the editorializing to it’s users and instead focuses on results.
While Harris and her team have absolutely zero desire to capitalize on the contentious political atmosphere in Washington, it would be naive to say it hasn’t been good for business. POLITICO recently dubbed the 112th Congress the ‘worst ever’, and civic activism appears to be at an all time high, judging by recent demonstrations from Tea Party activists, Occupiers, and most recently, advocates of a free internet. It would appear there has never been a better time to be the conduit for discussion between lawmakers and the American people.
Speaking with Harris, you could hear the excitement in her voice as turned toward the recent online movement to stop anti-piracy legislation. Given what we’ve seen transpire with online activism in just the past week, we can’t blame her. "I think this is a sea change…SOPA is evidence of what is happening," Harris remarked. "It’s an awakening that starts to really change the calculus of a legislative campaign. Lobbyists are starting to realize that they can’t just focus on staffers and are learning they need to talk to grassroots folks and communications people. A case needs to be made to the general public.”
The resounding efforts of last week’s protests to stop SOPA/PIPA are a part of a sweeping trend in not only America, but throughout our increasingly connected world. Taking a stand is becoming more and more common. Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ was The Protestor. No longer is activism a boring, lofty practice reserved for peace-nicks or war hawks. Platforms like PopVox allow you to be an armchair activist, and as the results show, people are being heard. Just as powerful as the tools that allow your voice to be heard is the recognition that normal people are capable of creating positive change. Last week was a stark example of how ordinary Joes can get things done, which makes PopVox a scary-useful tool for democracy. Keep your eyes on Marci Harris and PopVox, folks and hold on to your hats.