How to use your smartphone to get politically active

You want to do more than tweet, share, and like. You want to make a difference. These are the apps that can get you there.

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Credit: Google

A new presidential administration usually fires up political passions from those on the winning and losing sides of the recent election.

Bitter and cynical partisanship is sadly the norm, but it isn’t very constructive. Genuine civic engagement, however, can both empower you and encourage others to lobby and engage with your government about issues that matter.

The big question for anyone considering doing something as simple as contacting an elected official or lobbying for or against a bill is knowing where to start. It’s another of those questions your Android smartphone can help you answer, although you don’t want to end up on 200 mailing lists that do nothing but ask for donations.

The following apps and services have helped me follow the local, state, and national political issues. Using this information to take tangible steps can both enrich your role as a citizen and do far more than just shouting into the wind on Twitter.

Smart apps to start

A number of Android apps can get you started on this journey. One that I particularly like is Countable. It serves as a resource for following bills in Congress and getting a synthesis on the arguments for and against them. 

The app also uses your Facebook account information to automatically pin your elected officials in the app and make it easy to send them all an email at once (although emails are notoriously ineffective and you’re better off sending snail mail). There are also good details for true political geeks, like checking out the daily House and Senate schedules.

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Countable is an excellent resource for following the latest action in Congress.

Another good offering is TrackBill. It strips out the comments, calls to action, and some of the other peripherals that can get in the way of just focusing on the legislative details. It’s not just for Congress, either. You can drill down the search for what’s going on in your state capital, too. The “pro” features, such as tracking and alerts, don’t have a specified price for the enhanced services. Instead you’re prompted to get a quote, which indicates the prospective client base is companies that are interested in lobbying. However, I still find it to serve a practical purpose with the free functions.

trackbill Greenbot

Trackbill may be bland, but it gets the job done for those who want to follow bills as they move through committees to the floor.

Another recent entry is Brigade. It tries to be a mashup between a social network and a resource for information on political issues. The app does a good job with finding your representatives and building out a profile of what you want to engage with based on a series of issues-based quizzes.

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Brigade builds a personal portfolio based on your beliefs about certain issues.

If there’s an issue with Brigade and Countable, it’s that they suffer from the same problems as most online political discourse. Many of the “conversations” dissolved into generic talking points and ad hominem attacks that are so common on social media. Extreme partisanship is still the most pressing disease facing politics today, and it’s likely to infiltrate any effort to move the needle in the right direction.

What to do with that information

Here’s the rub about relying solely on apps and digital sources for civic engagement—filling out forms or sending emails are not very effective ways to get your elected officials to listen. According to former Congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth, calling your representative is the most effective manner to affect change.

contact your elected officials Greenbot

Once you know who to reach contact, it’s time to start making calls.

So while apps may help you stay informed, actually getting involved is going to take using the dialer. A simple Google search always helps, but USA.gov and most official sites for state legislatures have a tool to help you find out who your representative is if you’ve been on the sidelines for a while.

Second to calling the Washington or local offices of your officials is to send mail. Not email, good old-fashioned snail mail. 

Thinking beyond Washington

Another key aspect of getting involved is to stop being solely focused on Washington D.C. Many of the policies that impact you most directly happen at the state and local level.

An excellent resource is Open States. The web app can use your location to track down who you need to get in touch with if there are issues that you want to find out about.

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Open States is an excellent source of information about legislative issues.

The site also has a reader-friendly section that outlines bills that are coming down the pipeline and ones recently passed. Another helpful source for finding out about issues at all levels of government is Ballotpedia. It’s a solid, nonpartisan reference guide that breaks down election results, current bills, and details about elected representatives for local, state, and federal government.

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Ballotpedia is just like a Wikipedia for public affairs.

Finally, the best way to get involved is to make sure that you’re informed. The last few years have been challenging times for the publishing industry as ad revenues have plummeted, so if you value good journalism then consider subscribing to a favorite publication. In particular, the New York TimesWashington Post have aggressively perused investigative reporting into national politics. Want something less “corporate?” Pro Publica is a Pulitzer-winning independent nonprofit that does excellent investigative and explanatory journalism. Look into a digital subscription for your local newspaper as well, as that’s where you’re still going to find out the most about what’s going on where you live.

In the end, getting involved is what matters. Many startups are trying to build new tools to connect voters and push for a civic surge, but that’ll only happen if people are willing to spend less time shouting on Twitter or Facebook. Social media has a broad reach, but it quickly devolves into name-calling and shouting matches, and tends to spread false information as readily as facts. Effective civic engagement requires a little more, but your smartphone can help make it easy.

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