A nonprofit organization is looking to get more Floridians to participate in its instant polling on a mobile application about statewide legislative issues after three years of testing, experimenting and improving.
The Digital Democracy Project is hoping 2024 will be the year more Sunshine State voters will use their mobile app to provide feedback on some of the most serious legislative bills going before lawmakers in Tallahassee.
“We use mobile voting technology to let voters weigh in on legislation as it’s being debated in Tallahassee,” said Ramon Perez, Executive Director of the Digital Democracy Project in Florida.
Backers say the technology for the app is secure, and users must be registered voters who are residents of Florida.
Any registered voter can go to Apple or Google Play app stores and simply search Voatz, which is the company that produced the technology. Perez said once on the app, Florida residents need to type in the numerical code “142184.” That then allows them to begin participating and voting on opinions on active legislative bills being considered by lawmakers.
“As bills are being debated, we watch the committee process every week and we load bills into the app (and) people can get on there and say how they feel about any of these given bills and provide their input in real time,” Perez said.
That data is also integrated to the Digital Democracy Project website and legislators and voters can see how residents feel about issues within their particular legislative district.
“It’s kind of like real-time polling in a way that benefits the legislators. They get the finger on the pulse of their district. But for the voters it’s more about accountability and being involved in the process and having some transparency,” he said.
The process of providing input is not related to any actual voting on candidates or issues. But the technology developed by Voatz is in use and certified in several states for military voters overseas who need to vote by phone because they can’t get absentee ballots sent to them. Some states have started to allow some voters with visual impairments to use the phone app instead of using screens in the voting booth during actual elections, Perez said.
Perez stressed his nonprofit organization is not associated with the state and there is no association with actual votes on federal, state or municipal elections.
“We are letting people weigh in on legislation and providing that input to their legislators in real time during the debates in the Capitol,” Perez said. “What we want is for people to weigh in before a vote takes place on the floor of the state House.”
Ultimately, he said, the Digital Democracy Project is attempting to counteract the feeling of disenfranchisement among many voters. The same project is already taking place in several other states. It’s also an effort to point out that perceived political divisions among residents aren’t as profound as many believe.
“If you actually step back and talk to people about the issues at hand, you find they are not as far apart as the media or the politicians would have us believe,” Perez said. “You find that people have much more in common than they do that divides us.”
The Digital Democracy Project in Florida was initiated in 2021, went through beta testing in 2022 and was put into practical application in 2023. Perez said they want widespread use of the app in Florida by the end of 2024.
The Digital Democracy Project pays Voatz for the technological service and passes it along to users for free. Perez declined to disclose how much his organization pays for the service, but acknowledged most of that cost is covered by donations to their website.
While Perez, who’s located in Orlando, runs the Florida operations for the Digital Democracy Project, he is the founder of the nationwide effort as well, which started in Virginia. His background is in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. He’s also a U.S. Air Force veteran.
The Digital Democracy Project gets the word out through canvassing door to door and setting up informational tables at events. Some legislators — both Republicans and Democrats — promote the technology as well to invite more deliberation from voters.
Perez acknowledged special interest groups also are driving their supporters to participate in the instant polls as well. Many of those groups use digital marketing and phone solicitations in addition to the tactics Perez outlined.
With the increased accessibility for voters who offer near real-time opinions on issues of the day, Perez said the project is a passion.
“It felt to me like it was an answer to a lot of the problems in our elections system,” Perez said.
“What if we had technology to just get people’s involvement all the time whenever they feel like it? This is one of several tools in the toolkit toward restoring a more functional democracy that people can feel that they are part of,” he said.