How Citizens Can Pursue Practical, Potent, Grassroots Political Action - Net-Based, Computer-Aided

by Jim Warren

March 14, 1994

(c) 1994. May be copied-in-full at any time after April 15, 1994, in any form, provided this notice is included and no fee is charged for the specific copy nor for a paper publication of which it is a part.

This details how individuals can personally pursue powerful, effective political action. I am convinced that its use will explode in the '96 presidential elections and will mature by 1999. Delightfully, this only works for positions that have broad public support, though usually among disorganized and geographically scattered citizens. It's useless for covert special interests; in fact, it can overpower their insiders' clout.

Let me not understate this: I believe that the mature version of this approach will dominate irresistable citizen-based political action in the 21st Century.

There are two reasons for wanting access to government:

The latter requires the power to act - to effectively participate in shaping one's own destiny, the difference between a slave and a freeman - as well as timely access to information on which to base informed action.

I stumbled into developing parts of this while pursuing last year's effort to mandate free online access to Californica's [sic] legislative and statutory information, outlined in my December, 1993, BoardWatch column. However, this adds major features and enormously expands its empowerment of individual citizens.

As time permits, I expect to personally use it this year to

  1. help make state political disclosures and other public records freely and timely available, electronically,
  2. redress the Clinton/Gore administration's bizarre anti-privacy efforts to prohibit peep-proof personal and business communications, and
  3. reverse the Patent Office's zeal to grant 20-year monopoly-patents for every iota of software innovation - but only to those with enough wealth and lawyers to obtain them and defend them.

However, this political-action system is presented here, in general terms.

Types of Applications

Typical citizen uses include

The following first outlines some political fundamentals, then offers nuts-and-bolts details of how to apply networked computers to those fundamentals to achieve citizen-based control over government.

Fundamental Assumption

The body politic - when given

  1. adequate information on which to base informed decisions
  2. adequate time in which to fully consider the information, and
  3. the belief that its actions can make a difference

will act for the common good, better than any single overseer or governing body. The only alternative is a Master Class ruling subservient citizen- serfs.

Political Platitudes

Government is force. (George Washington said it.) Politics is persuasion. (I said it, though surely thousands have said it before me.) Thus, political power is the power of persuasion - the power to motivate others to do as you wish - company politics, community politics, sexual politics, etc. This concerns governmental politics - using persuasion to control government force.

Given that government imposes its will upon us all, it is absolutely justified for any citizen - hoping to control his or her own destiny - to pursue maximum political action, seeking to persuade as many others as possible to join together in directing government.

It's also absolutely inescapable.

Politics is about persuading government decision-makers - singularly and in globs - to use government force as it "should" be used, which of course, is determined by the eye of the beholder.

It particularly concerns persuading constituents to direct their representatives, and voters to replace unresponsive elected officials with candidates who appear like they will be responsive, or - in the case of ballot initiatives - to vote as they "should" vote on such measures.

Math Prerequisite

Politics had its own "modern math" - memorized by every successful politician.

Example: Most of the House of Representative's 535 Congressional Districts have perhaps 560,000 population. But only about half of the population is registered to vote - maybe 280,000 per District. And only about half to two- thirds of those who are registered typically vote - 140,000 to about 180,000, often identifiable by how recently they registered and the number and types of recent elections in which they voted.

Naive potential activists might then think they need to persuade at least half of about 160,000 voters to support their views - and promptly give up, wheezing, "You can't fight city hall." Not so!

Most contested elections (with numerous exceptions) are won by a 5% to 10% margin, or less - perhaps 7,000 to 18,000 of the typical number of actual voters in a typical House race. And that's the backbone-dissolving hidden horror haunting professional politicians:

A single individual who can swing 35,000 to 9,000 voters from one side to the opposite side can often control an election!

Furthermore, the most-persuasive advocacy is by non-partisan citizens contacting other citizens - for elections - or by groups of them to their elected representative(s) - for government action. Politicians know how powerful any single persuasive, tenacious citizen can be.

Further Political Pragmatics

Elected officials enter and remain in the meat-grinder of public office for some shifting combination of three rewards: ego to feel good, power to do good, and salary+percs as compensation for difficult work - just like most folks who hold jobs that they like. Ego, however, tends to play a much bigger part than in most other jobs. Thus stroking it and flailing it can be more persuasive in politics than in most other environs.

Excluding physical force, there are three approaches that are irresistibly persuasive to elected officials:

And the belief by an elected official that a citizen can deliver significant support for or opposition to their re-election completely overshadows the power of the first two rewards - including financial "rewards" from lobbyists and special interests.

The potential ability to sway only a few thousand voters for or against an elected official is the most persuasive tool in this nation's real-world politics.

And our interconnected thinkertoys massively-enhance citizens' personal political power - as individuals, ignoring wealth (but requiring tenacity). Here's tomorrow's grassroots political-action system, available now:

System Requirements

A user must have at least the following equipment:

That's all.

Caveat: Such equipment and connections should belong to an individual citizen-activist and be used on their own time - protected by the First Amendment's speech and assembly freedoms - or be owned and operated by a registered political organization.

They'd best not belong to a school, nonprofit organization, business or corporation nor operated during work-hours. Otherwise, they become "in-kind" political contributions that may be prohibited or require disclosure in formal campaign filings. (Incidentally, the same holds true for telephones, copying machines, etc., used for political action - Beware!)

Data Requirements

The body politic must be able to communicate with itself; i.e., it must be able to identify and locate its decision-makers - its voters.

A soapbox in Hyde Park is no longer sufficient for effective political action. Modern activism, if it is to be significant, requires access to voter-registration data in machine-readable form - at least names and mailing addresses for the action's targeted area(s). These are almost-universally available, usually at very low cost, though often only on 9-track dinosaur- compatible magtape. (Beware! Some incumbent politicians and political machines, that already have well-developed voter lists, want to severely restrict such citizen access to the nation's most-powerful decision-makers, the voters, in the name of privacy.)

It is preferable but not essential to also have computerized names, addresses and fax numbers of broadcast and print news-media and reporters, and of radio talk-show hosts, and for community organizations and businesses and their leaders, and of elected officials and senior public administrators - helpful but not essential.

Operator Skills

Colonial times and the radio era required oratorical skills to be politically effective; that excludes many of us. In the TV era, a pretty face and svelte body are perhaps the most important political prerequisite; which excludes most of us. In contrast, this citizen-action system is based on content; not slick voice nor trite facade. Our computers are our Great Equalizers. But we do need ability:

  1. At least one person must be skilled in writing persuasive communications - just as was essential in the times of Patrick Henry's electrifying pamphlets and the anonymously-authored Federalist Papers.
  2. Someone must have working knowledge of how the targeted real-world political environment actually operates - local, state, federal, legislative, executive, administrative, elective or regulatory, and so on.
  3. One or several people need to be able to build and maintain simple datafiles - most being rather small except for an area's voter-reg files, which can still fit easily on a micro. E.g., something less than 800,000 voter-reg records for Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County take less than 275 megabytes in uncompressed fixed-field format.
  4. Desktop-computer graphic-arts skills sufficient to create 8-1/2" x 11" leaflet-copy about the advocacy subject may be useful.

There's one final prerequisite - always required for effective political action: A monumental amount of time and personal tenacity. But, for this system, it's only needed by one or a very few organizers or coordinators.

Not Required

In fact, no one needs to receive, have or control loot beyond pocket change - just enough to cover the cost of net-connections and the above-noted equipment and data-files and their use, as follows.

Tutorial For New Users

Let's say the Awful Bill (e.g., the administration's anti-privacy/anti- crypto bill) has been introduced in Congress, is to be heard by the Committee on Stuff, and Rep. Gladhand is a key member of that committee - and you don't live in Gladhand's District. So how can you - as a mere peon citizen - impact Gladhand's vote or the committee's decision?

"Important" people have greatest sway over Gladhand's vote - especially hustlers inside the Washington Beltway. Excluding them, individualized letters and faxes might help (though only one of Gladhand's minor staff will see 'em), phone calls are counted, and form letters and form postcards might be better than nothing. So write Gladhand a one-page personal letter and make sure it arrives no earlier than about a week before the hearing.

But a dribble of communications from outside of an elected official's district is often ignored. Some legislators even instruct their staff to discard anything from well-beyond their district.

So what else can you do to participate in your governance?

Citizen-to-Citizen Advocacy

Throughout history and including today's mass-market Herding Era, citizen- to-citizen personal advocacy has always been, by far, the most persuasive. Even between strangers. Therefore:

Get the names and addresses of as many voters in Gladhand's district as you are willing to contact by mail. Write to them as a concerned citizen, writing to a fellow citizen who "should" be concerned. Seek to escalate their concern to a level where they will contact their Representative, Gladhand - who will be attentive to those voters' comments. Limit the letter to one page, apparently-typed addressed to the individual voter - possibly enclosing several additional pages of supplementary information and references. Don't use fancy fonts and graphics.

Unlike semi-useless form-letters to Gladhand directly, letters to voters in Gladhand's turf can be fixed form, individualized only in their address and personal signature (with ink that is clearly different from the printer's black color).

Well-crafted letters to Gladhand's voters can prompt them to draft their own individualized letters to their representative. Even though most addressees won't actually contact their legislator, their awareness of the issue will be escalated - and that's infectious. Gladhand will hear about it.

Magnifying Your Impact

How can you further seek to shape your governance? Urge others to do as you have done - everywhere; not just in Gladhand's district. The net's perfect for it.

Offer copies of your form letter(s), supplementary information, and letter- printing scripts for popular word-processors, by anonymous ftp [file transfer protocol]. Encourage others to customize everything to their own style, perspectives and concerns.

Use the nets to help coordinate this grassroots action: Obtain the full voter-reg list for Gladhand's district. Offer to provide any desired quantity of names and addresses of Gladhand's voters to those who are willing to similarly-send some quantity of letters. When providing names, do nth-name selection so as to spread the individual sender's letters widely across the District.

Note that volunteers always do what they want to do, rather than what you want them to do. Those who are cooperating in the action need to know what's actually being sent and when it's really arriving. Therefore, include at least one "seed"-name in each voter-list sent to a letter-emitting volunteer, fully disclosing what you are doing and why. This will require having at least one and preferably several cooperating addressees in the target District who can feed back what they receive from whom, when.

Almost all of this can and should be fully disclosed - the best kind of political action, an open grassroots effort.

Penetrating Communities

As you connect with supporters in or near Gladhand's district, also offer them digital copies of handbills and door-stuffers that they can print on their own laserprinters and post on local bulletin boards or distribute to friends' and neighbors' message boxes (with the caution that stuffing U.S. Snail Service boxes is ill-eagle).

Newspaper surveys typically report that the Letters-to-the-Editor column is the most-widely read section of a newspaper! Suggest the topics, but not the wording, for "Letters to the Editor" to local newspapers, along with lists of their addresses and names of their Editorial-Page Editors. Even if the letters aren't printed, a floodlette of them can stampede media interest among herds of reporters and editors.

Do the same regarding radio talkshow hosts in Gladhand's turf.

If the issue is likely to be of interest to community organizations, offer the same kinds of information organizations and their chair-creatures. Ditto for local business leaders if the issue impacts business.

Back to Congress, these same techniques can be equally applied to all the members of the Committee on Stuff - especially those who are leaning in the "wrong" direction. (Voters are much more-likely to complain about their rep's wrong-headedness, than to write letters supporting desired action.) And, by the time the issue comes to a floor vote, you will have built a potent net- based, computer-aided grassroots political-action volunteer-mob with which to flog 50%+one of the legislative body.

Effective community action is never easy, but you no longer have to be handsome, wear a tie, walk a precinct, nor subvert yourself to the dictates of an established political organization in order to have a potent impact.

Make waves! Net-surf for Freedom!

Just Like the Ol' Days

Neat, huh? This is akin to the last time a rag-tag minority of malcontents revolted against "established leaders and proper authority."

Patrick's descendants will again draft inflammatory rhetoric, provoking the disorganized but discontented colonists to act. Ben's descendants will again crank up their household printing presses, leafleting friends and strangers around the colonies. George's descendants will map their plans on digital foolscap and coordinate volunteer MinutePersons with electronic carrier- pigeons. And Paul's fleet-fingered descendants will again race around the bumpy electronic roads, disturbing the peace with shouted warnings about the royal efforts to resist the irresistable - citizens once again voluntarily acting in concert to regain control of their own destinies.

Mount up, folks. We have a heritage to honor.

"SELF-INFLATING PUFF-PIECE" Warren [345 Swett Rd., Woodside CA 94062; (415)851-7075;] led the 1993 citizen effort to make state legislation and statutes freely available online, is now pushing for similar access to campaign-finance disclosures, received the Electronic Frontier Foundation first-year Pioneer Award and the Society of Professional Journalists-Northern California James Madison Freedom-of-Information Award (1994). He founded InfoWorld was founding host of PBS' television's "Computer Chronicles," founding Editor of Dr. Dobb's Journal and has chaired various computer organizations.

He began working as a programmer in 1968 after 10 years teaching mathematics, holds three graduate degrees and has taught computing at various universities including Stanford.