The First Whistleblower Law in the World

Esek Hopkins was the brother of Stephen Hopkins, Governor of Rhode Island and Signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was appointed the first Commander of the Continental Navy in 1775.

A few months later, the Continental Congress declared independence, and Commander Hopkins suddenly became the most powerful naval officer in the new United States.

Despite their decision to bestow this position on him, Commander Esek Hopkins held the Continental Congress in very low regard. He charted his own course, and was his own man. In the era of monarchy and lords, it still seemed proper to just do what you want with your title and powers, and he had islands to see and routes he wanted to chart.

Yet just seven months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, in the midst of existential war with the greatest military power in the world, ten brave American sailors and marines met below deck on the USS Warren to write a petition to Congress, claiming that their boss, the most powerful man in the United States Navy, was corrupt. Risking charges of treason and potential death by hanging, they notified Congress in writing of improper behavior by the Continental Navy’s most powerful man. All ten men signed the petition.

And so it was that just seven months after his brother joined 55 others to sign the Declaration of Independence that Esek Hopkins was charged with violating his oath of office with conduct unbecoming an officer and actions of personal enrichment.

The ten brave men lacked any legal protections for what they did. There were no laws to protect whistleblowers. No such concept existed. And it was wartime with the greatest military power in the world. They wrote:

“He has been guilty of such crimes as render him quite unfit for the public department he now occupies.” They continued:

We know him to be from his conversation and conduct, a man destitute of the principles, both of religion and Morality. We likewise know that he Sets the most impious example both to his officers and Men by frequently profaning the name of almighty God, and by ridiculing virtue…

I, the Subscriber, can attest that our Commander Commodore Hopkins has Spoken very abusively concerning the Honorable Congress; calling that respectable assembly, who ought to be considered as the guardians of American liberty, a pack of ignorant lawyers and Clerks, who know nothing at all.”

They also alleged that Commander Hopkins charted his own course of the ships for personal enrichment rather than the nation’s interest.

Hopkins, upon receiving the charges and what he perceived to be mutinous behavior, was enraged. He filed a criminal libel suit against the men in the Rhode Island Courts.

The response of the Continental Congress was to author the world’s very first Whistleblower Law, on July 30 1778, by unanimous consent. The law declared it “the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

Congress investigated, found that Hopkins was (among other things) enriching Rhode Island and his business partners unduly. Congress also paid for the defense of the ten accusers. Samuel Shaw, the main protagonist in the Hopkins case, is recognized today as the nation’s first whistleblower and is honored every National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

That all this went on in the midst of existential war is astounding to me. Wouldn’t it have been far easier to just side with the Commander of the Navy and censure the men? But they didn’t.

The founders of this nation had a very clear vision of the kind of nation they wanted to create, and they enacted novel new laws to see it come to fruition. They were far from perfect, but the insight required to enact laws such as this, and take the side of the ten men, is profound. It strikes me as incredibly easy to take for granted.

John Adams himself led the committee investigating the matter — he wrote in later journals that he found nothing seriously wrong. But Jefferson vehemently disagreed, and felt Hopkins was violating his oath. The two did see eye to eye on the need for a Whistleblower Law, and enacted that quickly.   

Seattle Primary: Preliminary Cost/Vote

On average, campaigns directly spent $21.96 per vote in the August 6th Seattle City Council Primary Election.

Which Seattle City Council Primary candidates spent the most/least per vote? Based on preliminary numbers of direct expenditures and votes counted as of 8:00PM last night, here’s a chart. Names in bold are, at this writing, most likely to move on to the general November 5th election, though these names could change as the remaining votes come in.

Several very important caveats:

[1] This chart only includes direct expenditures by the candidate, not spending by PACs on their behalf. There was significant PAC spending in this race. Direct Expenditures are as reported by the King County Elections board as of August 6th 2019.

[2] Votes are still being counted and won’t be final for at least a week. These numbers will change; direct expenditure per vote will decline as votes come in.

The fourteen candidates who are most likely to move on to the general election (as of August 7th — again, these numbers may change) are displayed in bold.

Observations

I was interested to see that of the 14 City Council candidates most likely to move to the general, all but one — incumbent Council Member D. Juarez — participated in Alignvote. Another way to look at this: there were 13 of the 54 candidates who chose not to participate, deciding not to use the completely free platform as a way to get their stances/message to voters. In the end, all but one of the candidates who declined participation won’t advance to the General Election. No non-participating candidate who isn’t an incumbent will advance.

Alignvote delivered about 11,200+ candidate rankings during this period, and was shared a lot online. CM Juarez remains most welcome to confirm her stances at any time, and I’ll continue to reach out to her campaign office.

Two candidates: Kshama Sawant and Shaun Scott, spent more than the average per vote. Sawant’s campaign was astonishingly big-budget — she directly spent 5.5x the campaign average. (Campaign average direct expenditure: $42,539.)

Money isn’t everything, but it can perhaps help candidates overcome negatives, if focused on turnout.

Heidi Wills spent just about at overall average level on a per-vote basis (but 2x on a campaign budget overall basis.) Eleven other candidates spent less than average per vote.

Ann Davison Sattler ran a very small budget campaign and showed a lot of efficiency — doing very well, albeit in a relatively small field.

Sort By Total Votes Received (As of August 6th 2019 8:15pm)

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A Candidate Opts Out

Today, I received an official request, via the confirmed Twitter candidate address, from D2 candidate Christopher Peguero to opt out of ALIGNVOTE.

Within an hour, per his request, his listing was changed from stances-known — even though he had previously confirmed all of his stances to voters — to “cleared and unranked” and “opted out.”

Per the outline of the “Want to Opt Out?” section in the introductory blog post, his listing now shows as unranked at the bottom of D2 searches, as follows:

You can see by it taking the Seattle District 2 City Council Race Alignvote Survey, even if you’re not a D2 voter.

This opt-out of course means he cannot elaborate via the platform on his stances on the issues, when D2 constituents turn to the site to compare alignment between themselves and the candidates in the race. Nor will he have access to new candidate-facing features as they are improved and released, such as potentially some candidate-facing top-line analytics about broad summaries of voter sentiment in the race.

As explained previously, Alignvote lists all eligible candidates in each race. We do not outright delete listings, because voters and journalists — including but not limited to supporters of his — might be confused as to why a known candidate is not appearing on the list. Thus, we must explain to voters his status as non-participating, or opting-out. His listing shows in all D2 voter searches, including links to his campaign, where voters can learn more.

We don’t think his decision is great for voters, but it’s his to make. And it clearly means he will miss new opportunities to get his message out online. We’ve completed 3,000+ candidate comparisons at this writing, and this will likely grow substantially soon, as Alignvote is being shared a lot, and also about to be on TV. In some districts, CM elections have been decided by dozens of votes.

Why?

Candidate Peguero expressed serious concerns about both (a) my personal volunteer affiliation with Speak Out Seattle, a group whose positions he does not align with, and (b) that I did not clearly disclose who was behind Alignvote when I sent out the questionnaires. He also (c) claimed I’m somehow closely “affiliated” with Safe Seattle, which is patently untrue — I am in no way part of the leadership or editorial team, nor have I posted much of substance (certainly nothing that would remotely be considered hate) on that page.

I have no funding or financial or organizational/entity association, past or present, with Safe Seattle in any way. It’s a page (a highly popular one, with over 10,000 followers) that people can choose to follow or not with a single click. There’s no “membership”; one simply clicks “Follow” or “Unfollow.” Moreover, I’ve also written here, on this blog, that I don’t always find their voice helpful to the city dialogue, and that I wish they’d retract some articles. Occasionally they do break news. And yes, Safe Seattle has, entirely on their own, posted a link to a blog of mine about the accuracy of self-reported data. But as it’s on the web, it’s freely available for all to read, link and share. I wasn’t contacted by the Safe Seattle editors about this article’s sharing to their 10,000+ readership, and only noticed it after it had gone live since the traffic went through the roof.

Since I fully stand behind what my blog post said, and even the author of the Crosscut piece to which I responded ended up agreeing with my central points, I’m happy to have it shared.

On Keeping My Role Mum for Five Days

I reiterate my apology for keeping the information on who is behind this platform opaque during the 5-day questionnaire rollout-to-candidates phase. I have earlier on this blog (screenshot below) explained the rationale for doing so.

I’m honestly not sure at this point if I’d do it differently, or if this candidate’s very decision in fact validates my decision. Of course, it cannot be done in future uses of Alignvote, and while this platform begins with the Seattle City Council Primary of 2019 as its main beta-test, it has broad applicability to other races around the country, with which I have essentially zero relevant affiliations or involvements, unless we are to say that being a federal taxpayer is somehow disqualifying.

While that opacity is certainly a legitimate concern during the five-day survey gathering phase before we went live with voters (and I announced my own affiliation quite clearly on that day), it’s rather ironic that we now have an opt-out because I had what I felt were reasonable concerns about this very opt-out happening, which at its core springs from a cynical and false disinformation campaign.

While he and I may look at some issues differently, as human beings do, I don’t think there’s much question that his decision deprives voters of valuable (and frankly already on-the-record, just not as easily discover-able) insight about his stances.

Importantly, these opt-outs and “de-platforming” attempts spring from a deeply dishonest and cynical disinformation campaign. It relies upon dishonestly conflating two entirely separate groups, which have different (a) leaders, (b) causes, (c) approaches, (d) media, (e) goals, (f) civility of discussion and (g) perspectives. They have similar sounding names, and they both are engaged in discussion about homelessness, public safety and addiction in the Emerald City, but they are very different in (1) what they are trying to accomplish, (2) how they are trying to accomplish it, (3) who leads each group, (4) how they discuss issues, and (5) what kinds of discussion are fair-game.

But the good news is that you don’t have to take my word for it, and you don’t have to take the tiny group of detractors’ word for it. Speak Out Seattle is a publicly viewable Facebook group. You don’t have to join; simply click on that link, and go explore what kind of discussion takes place there.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

And then, if you’d like, go to the major volunteer effort I was involved in for the group: the free and open City Council Forums which were held in all seven districts. 70%+ of the questions came from the audience. Go check those out — you can jump right to the Q&A with handy links, because I took a Saturday when I could be doing other things, and hand-indexed them all. But they’re pretty much as you’d expect a civic forum to be. No doubt there are controversial issues, but I challenge you to find the “hate.” This particular candidate also boycotted these forums, presumably for the same reasons. And let’s remember for a moment that he’s running to represent all constituents of D2.

As you’ve no doubt seen, the discussion in the SOS group is generally of the form of concern (yes, sometimes urgent concern), a search for what is working (or not) in other regions of the country, yes, expressions of frustration when things don’t work well for communities and people experiencing homelessness or addiction or other crises (is that off limits for some reason?), what evidence suggests might be the best approach, and more.

SOS’s general policy stances include being in favor of a regional approach (unified at the county level) to homelessness. It backs many of the recommendations from the report we taxpayers paid $200,000 to several years ago — including better coordination of services. SOS is at the moment opposed to taxpayer-funded (mobile van based) Safe Injection Sites as is currently being pushed by some Council Members. SOS is in favor of permanent shelter and permanent supportive housing over tiny villages, opposed to overly permissive approaches on encampment on parks and public greenspace, in favor of dramatic improvement to our systemic failures around frequent offenders, strongly in favor of treatment on demand, electing more effective leaders, and greater investment in wraparound services once that can be established.

In SOS, there are members who have been homeless and some who are currently homeless. 2,500+ strong and growing, there are Speak Out Seattle members who have suffered from addiction and have been incarcerated. There are community members and neighbors. There are public service workers and volunteers. There are people of all races, genders, and religions. There are members who volunteer at food banks, recovery centers and shelters. There are members who are first-responders. There are doctors and nurses and mental health professionals. There are journalists. Discussion is heavily moderated, and kept as civil as you’ll find it anywhere on the web about such difficult, urgent and controversial topics. [I invite you to consider joining more than 2,500 members who are concerned about finding better approaches to the way that we are tackling (or not) homelessness, public safety and addiction.]

Yes, I’ve volunteered for Speak Out Seattle.

I am in fact the reason that you, and all other voters in Seattle can watch the City Council forums held in all districts on YouTube. That’s because I brought my camera equipment, computer, arranged for a good network connection where one was available, attended and livestreamed all seven district council forums, tore it down, made sure it was indexed for all to see. Yes, I suppose I “funded” that too; that is, a couple of pieces of equipment were necessary to do so, so I bought them, and used them pro-bono. (You’re welcome, Seattle.) Happy to do so, for all the voters and candidates and reporters and civic leaders who found them valuable! Because I believe in a more informed electorate, regardless of where we stand on the issues.

Thus far, these forums have had thousands of views. Candidates, with rare exception, have been very appreciative of these opportunities to meet with voters, hear their concerns, and outline their perspectives.) Yet had this tiny group of activists had their way, no one would be able to view them, and candidates would have missed out on a major opportunity to get in front of voters all across the city.

These events were the target of a deeply dishonest (and ultimately spectacularly backfiring) disinformation campaign that attempted to get candidates to opt-out. A couple, including candidate Christopher Peguero, did indeed opt out. They were invited, but chose not to participate. Most of those who did not participate have expressed online that SOS is some kind of “satellite” of Safe Seattle, and believe that SOS should be “deplatformed.” I vehemently disagree on both counts. And I think it’s time citizens push back on this illiberal behavior about what issues can and cannot be discussed, if we want to return civil dialog to the scene.

So, that’s why, in the five day period between when questionnaires were emailed to candidates and the public beta announcement, I kept my own personal identity opaque. I did so deliberately, in part because of those concerns about the dishonest “deplatforming” campaign.

Transparent Since Beta Announcement

On and since the voter-facing announcement of Alignvote, I’ve made my associations with volunteer groups, charitable causes and small donations extremely clear. Links to much more about me, why I’m doing this, and the platform are clearly linked-to at the top of the “About” page of Alignvote.com. See “Hi, I’m Steve.”

There is no bias baked into the platform, and math is applied the same to all candidates and all questions. Candidates can confirm that when they self-interview, they come out #1 or tied for #1 (if another candidate aligns fully with them on these questions.)

I do not have to be doing this project to help bring a transparent tool to voters, but I am. I care about getting more people of ALL political beliefs to participate in elections and an open exchange of (and understanding of) ideas. I know that I’d prefer a tool that would let me find candidates that most closely align with how I’d answer questions, and many people have already commented upon how useful the tool is in their search. (It shouldn’t begin and end with this tool; it’s just one of many.)

Twitter Back and Forth

Candidate Peguero shares his concern about why he’s opted-out in his Twitter thread, which you can go check out at @christopherpeg5 on Twitter:


My response

I do not claim to be unbiased.

I am human, just as Candidate Peguero is. I have perspectives on what might work best as a set of policy approaches for our city, as does he. And I vote. I am not a robot. This platform was created by a human.

But I do claim that while Alignvote has shortcomings and should never be the sole tool one relies upon (which political evaluation tool should be?), it is equitable to all candidates, and many voters have already said it’s a useful comparison tool for them. It’s not the only tool, nor should it be, but it’s one tool that can be used.

As for equitability, this includes, but is not limited to:

  • No favoritism is given to any one, or any subset of candidates.
  • All candidates have full access to their own dashboard.
  • All candidates have been invited, some repeatedly nudged. No filtering is done of what any candidate says.
  • No changes to stances are made.
  • No editing is done to what any candidate says.
  • No math matching formula is applied for one candidate which is different for any other candidate.
  • All candidates can and should confirm that they rank #1 for any voter test where they pretend to be a voter who has precisely the same stances.

The Alignvote platform is equitable to all candidates, and very simply measures distance between the views that you, the voter express, and the views that the candidates have on the questions provided. It also allows candidates to elaborate upon their answers if they so choose.

You, the voter, answer precisely the same questions candidates do (either directly or in public venues when inferred), and the platform measures your level of “similarity” in those answers. If the candidates want to elaborate on why they’ve chosen the option, they have been empowered to do so via their dashboard, and those elaborations go live the moment they hit the submit button. The platform indicates whether those candidates who have elaborated AGREE or DISAGREE with the voter’s current stance. It’s pretty simple, and it’s designed to be pretty simple. It does have shortcomings and some of those will be erased over time. But in the meantime, find me the political evaluation tool which is perfect.

As I predicted in the launch of this site, some will not be enamored with this transparency tool for voters, especially as it grows in usage and attention, as it definitely will between now and election day.

Candidate Peguero’s central stated concern is the fact that I did, in fact, hide my identity during the survey-collection phase. He is right to call me out on that — it’s true. I explained pretty clearly why I did so, and I apologize to those candidates who feel that decision was deceptive. But I do find it rather ironic now that the reason being cited for the opt-out was that I was concerned about opt-outs, because I had very legitimate concerns about a limited but vocal minority encouraging opt-outs, which would deprive voters of an easy way to understand candidate stances. In the end, these aren’t candidates providing answers to me. They’re providing them to you, the voter, who is evaluating candidates.

I will leave it to you, Dear Reader and Voter, to consider the question of whether the time has come to factor this kind of “deplatforming” effort into your vote, whether you should take a moment to speak up about it, and whether this kind of cynical “deplatforming” helps or hurts informed choice.

If a candidate’s participation in this voter-transparency tool impacts your vote in any way, you should say so.

As I explained in the launch of this site:

On Speak Out Seattle vs. Safe Seattle

SOS is a group that was formed by four women in Ballard who became concerned about the public encampment regulation that Council Member Mike O’Brien was pushing forward in City Council. These smart and compassionate founders came together to push back on that, because they felt that letting people encamp in city parks was not best for either the individuals involved or the larger community. Their work expanded to the repeal of the Head Tax. And then, the most visible work of the group has been to host City Council Forums in each of the 7 Districts. (Candidate Peguero was invited, but chose not to participate.) Speak Out Seattle is a Facebook group over 2,500 members strong, and encourages civil dialogue on the urgent issues at the intersection of Homelessness, Addiction and Public Safety. Members commit to a civil exchange of ideas, evidence-based discussion, and essentially, a no-trolling policy.

“To date, Speak Out Seattle likely does more than any other org in Seattle to help voters get to know the more than 50 plus candidates running for city council and vice versa. That’s what the SOS bashers just don’t get.” — Nate Chaffetz, Everybody Hates Nate

Safe Seattle, on the other hand, is a snarky, often (in my view) mean-spirited Facebook page that people can either follow or un-follow in a single click. I do not always consider it helpful to the city dialogue and there are some stories that I wish they’d retract. I have no more association with Safe Seattle than does anyone who “follows” someone on Twitter. A Facebook “follow” is something one either does or doesn’t do. I welcome any detractor to find and post screenshots of me saying anything “hateful” about the homeless or other concerns.

If you’d like to hear directly from one of the founders of Speak Out Seattle about the clear distinction between these groups, please read this post. The other co-chair, by the way, was an alternate delegate for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. So it’s rather hard to make a factual case that this group is a bunch of alt-right folks, as a small but vocal group of critics have been disingenously doing.

It turns out real citizens of Seattle do have legitimate concerns about matters of addiction, public safety, public encampment and more. They were front-and-center in the audience questions at the Speak Out Seattle forums. I am a human, and I do have concerns about these issues, guilty as charged.

Alignvote doesn’t care about these issues, because it simply mathematically and equitably calculates similarity between YOUR and CANDIDATE answers to the SAME questions.

Alignvote’s Opt-Out Policy

It’s a beta, and our opt-out policy isn’t fully established yet.

We expect, with upcoming TV coverage (likely next week), and the viral nature of the site — because there are so few tools at voters’ disposal for this kind of clear comparative information — that Alignvote will surpass 100,000 voter “candidate rankings” by election day, August 6th 2019. That obviously provides a tremendous incentive to candidates not just to participate and have their stances and messages to voters clear, but it provides equitable-to-all-candidate opportunities to get their message out to voters about why they feel the way they do. Non-participating candidates have no mathematical chance to score in the top ranked search results, because we have no way of calculating if their positions on the issues match those of the voter.

We think this tool helps voters understand where candidates stand, and we of course would love for all candidates to participate. But we certainly will not force candidates who do not wish to participate to participate.

For operational reasons, we do, at a minimum, have a three-week waiting period once a candidate opts-out of the tool to get back on the platform if they want to. That’s because there are currently operational costs to opting out and opting back in, and we do not think an inconsistent experience benefits voters, where someone can be in the platform one moment and out the next. So, to start, we have established a 3-week minimum waiting period, but it may also be a permanent decision once made. We invite this candidate to contact us from his official campaign email address should he wish to rejoin the platform, and offer to re-establish his listing just like anyone else’s.

New Twitter Blocking Policy

Again, as I predicted a few days ago, trolls have surfaced.

While I’m transparent about who I am, they often are not as transparent, and prefer to launch their work from anonymous accounts. Some of the most frequent posters are not even residents of Seattle, and won’t be eligible to vote in this City Council election.

While I am extremely open to thoughtful critique, debate and ideas to make this an even better tool for voters and candidates, I have better things to do than engage in juvenile Twitter trolling wars. The Alignvote platform marches forward, there are many very interesting opportunities to expand it, and there are only so many hours in the day.

So, despite my strong personal distaste for the “block” and “mute” buttons, when things drift into bad-faith discussion or false innuendo or rehashing questions clearly known to have been asked and answered, I will be blocking, both from @alignvote and my personal account, @stevemur.

Good-faith discussion is a two-way affair; it’s not unidirectional.

What You Can Do

Do you support what we’re trying to do here? Could use a word of support on Twitter.

If candidates’ participation level on Alignvote influences your voting decision in any way, it’d be helpful to let candidates know about it.

We’re https://twitter.com/alignvote on Twitter.

Long-planned Break: Platform Freeze Until 1st Week of July

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter and here on this blog over the past several days, I will be going on a long-planned guys’ trip, backpacking for a couple weeks.

This was long-planned, certainly well before the spark that created Alignvote. So I will be mercifully off the grid for a couple weeks. I will be prioritizing candidate emails first when I return, and apologies in advance for slow response. A friend has offered to step in and catalog responses and answer simple questions, but all suggestions will gain a full look in a few weeks.

Hope you too can get out to the great outdoors this summer or fall, and see you in July!

Summer Reading

I invite people to read this excellent book by noted liberal commentator Kirsten Powers:

Candidates, Have Your Say

New ALIGNVOTE Feature: Candidate Voices

Immediately upon launch of the candidate-facing preview of ALIGNVOTE last Wednesday, I heard a great feature request from D4 candidate Heidi Stuber. Paraphrasing our exchange:

“I understand why multiple choice is great for finding a match, but often, multiple choice questions have a need for explanation as to why a particular stance was selected. Please allow me to elaborate on an answer.”

A few days later, I heard that request from two other candidates.

I told her by email then that I thought that her suggestion was a terrific and important feature, and that I’d implement it as quickly as I could, but that for various reasons I wanted to get the beta up and going. But no question, she’s right: some multiple choice answers can lose a great deal of nuance, and it’s important to offer candidates a chance to elaborate upon why they selected the option they did. Today, the day after the voter-facing public beta was announced, I’m pleased to report that this feature has been implemented on both the candidate-facing view and the voter-facing view. Candidates, now it’s your turn.

I’ve lamented before in a different context that nuance is in hibernation in America, and I definitely don’t like that trend. It’s happening on both the far right and the far left. Complex issues rarely have simple explainers or options. And I’m happy to do what I can to make room for nuance in a very tiny but important way.

One dilemma I thought about was how and when to present it to the voter. I also wanted to do it in such a way that it didn’t “push” the voter too much before they have had a chance to think and take their own stand. Sometimes, allowing a shift in our preconceived notion is an important part of politics and moving forward, and personally, I think it’s good to encourage pauses for reflection, and make space for moments where it can happen.

It’s important to note that by itself, the text of what’s written is not going to improve a match score, because ALIGNVOTE cannot read the voter’s mind and know whether that’s what they think too. It only sees which ultimate option is chosen and whether it matches the stance the candidate has, and applies the relative weighting of that issue to figure out how “closely aligned” on the questions provided they are. But reading this explanatory text on a position might be very informative to you about which option you should choose, and give you, the voter, a chance to compare brief and to-the-point rationales.

So here’s the way it works:

First, the Candidate Gets an Easy Way to Optionally, Briefly Elaborate

ALIGNVOTE sent all campaigns an email earlier today a link that lets them elaborate on any or all answers. Every single campaign got emailed this link, based upon the officially registered email address on file with the City of Seattle. They need to double-check SPAM folders or re-request it from us. (I cannot just send it to any old email address, for what I hope are understandable reasons.)

ALIGNVOTE indicates clearly that elaborating is optional, and the text of what’s written will not change the match-scoring, but it might encourage a voter to align with their stance on the issue, thus encouraging a greater match score and resultant ranking.

Elaborations are only allowed to those candidates who confirm their stances via the ALIGNVOTE surveys sent.

Personal note: Candidates, take a stand and choose an option; that’s a big part of what we’re electing you to do. One of the things ALIGNVOTE fights against is attempting to have one’s cake and eating it too. Candidates can update their elaboration at any time via their link, but stances are locked in unless they email us.

In the ALIGNVOTE Interview, the Voter Sees the Question and Ponders their Stance…

Let’s say they first choose “Might be a good idea.”

Candidate Voices are Revealed, if Present

There’s a “Candidate Voices” section that’s revealed, with a shuffled list of responses from candidates. ALL available candidate voices on the issue (not just the selected stance) are provided. There is no selection or filtering. If a candidate submits a sentence or two via their ALIGNVOTE survey, it is displayed. ALL candidate views are displayed; these are in no way filtered or curated or altered or hidden by ALIGNVOTE. You, the voter, see what the candidate wrote:


  • You, the voter are free to revise your choice or weighting based on the candidate’s official voice on the issue.
  • ALIGNVOTE shuffles the display order of candidate voices when one or more is present, so that one candidate doesn’t always get top billing or the last word. (At this writing, this is the first use of randomization in ALIGNVOTE. Known bug: Currently doesn’t shuffle until there are three or more elaborations in the list for a given issue. Addressing soon.)
  • If no candidate in the race offers an elaboration, no “Candidate Voices” subsection is displayed.
  • The elaborations are a maximum of 240 characters each, the current maximum length of a Tweet.
  • The elaborations can be updated at any time by the candidate if they so choose. This policy may change based upon logistical ease, but for now, that’s the case — it can be changed as issues or news warrant.
  • Only those candidates who have actually completed and submitted the ALIGNVOTE stance survey (officially confirming their stances) will have their statements displayed to voters.

For Candidates, It’s a Great Way to Get Your Message to Voters

High-propensity voters will be using this tool. Candidates shouldn’t miss the opportunity to get their stances and messages to voters who are pondering their own views on an issue. We strongly encourage all candidates to complete their ALIGNVOTE survey, and suggest that they use the new elaborations feature to reach voters with a succinct description of their rationale for their stances.

Please give busy candidates and campaigns the benefit of the doubt by noting that this is a brand new feature, only hours old. Only hours ago did all candidates receive the ability to actually enter their stances, so it understandably may take time for them to craft the right 240 character stances. That’s reasonable.

To see the feature in action, visit the D4 Race, as the candidate who suggested this feature has already provided her comments.

Other Updates Released Today

We are still in beta and will be for a while.

  • Explanatory text on the weighting slider
  • Privacy Policy

Answers to a few questions

No changes to the match scoring algorithm have been made since we went live. None. Zero. If you’re seeing better rankings (and I guess that actually translates to: “more in line with what I thought it would be”), as at least one person has mentioned on Twitter, it might be because candidates have taken a moment to confirm/update their stances, which just makes everything better and helps us be more informed about where they stand. (Thanks, candidates!)

At present, the only place where randomization is used in ALIGNVOTE is the shuffling of the order of candidate elaborations.

Traveling Soon, Slow Response Very Likely Late June Until Early July

I do have some long-planned personal commitments and travel that will likely keep me away from the computer for a couple weeks at the end of June. This was planned well before the idea for ALIGNVOTE even began. I wish I could stay here frankly. My other commitments and travel will cause some interruption and slow response during this period, I just want to be up front about that. There will be a very busy July through early August, for sure, and I’ll very much be around for that.

The Best Way To Get New Feature Announcements

At this writing, 1,600+ candidate score matches have been done by the platform. No question, many of these are dupes by the same person kicking the tires and checking it out. But it’s also good to remember that in our last District Level Election (2015), some races were decided by mere dozens of votes.

Thanks for the great and constructive feedback and I hope this tool is useful in narrowing down a few candidates with whom to connect.

Update: AGREES/DISAGREES Indicator

In taping a segment to be aired on TV next week, a reporter noted to me that he got confused about the display of the “Candidate Voices” section. Though there is clear hover text over the info-button, he was under the impression that only the candidate voices who agreed with the stance the voter had selected would be shown.

That’s incorrect — ALL candidates who have provided elaborations are shown, regardless of the answer provided. Just like a live candidate forum, we do no filtering of what they say. It’s displayed immediately for all candidates once they submit their questionnaire. They have the ability to edit or change those elaborations at any time.

In addition, we are now making it clear whether the candidate who provided an elaboration AGREES or DISAGREES with the stance the voter has tentatively selected, as follows:

This is only done where an elaboration is provided. For now, in this beta, this is done by design. That’s because, just like a forum, we want voters to hear more than just a yes or no, we’d like them to put a short statement of support for why they chose the option they chose.

The AGREES/DISAGREES indicator simply tells the voter at a glance whether the candidate agrees with what the voter is choosing or not. And it’s available for all candidates who provide elaboration text.

The benefit for candidates of course is that they can get the justification out there to voters for WHY they feel the way they do about an issue. The benefit for voters is that they get to read it, and can see at a glance whether the candidate agrees with their stance or not.

Introducing ALIGNVOTE

Ever wish you had help discovering which candidates agree the most with you? Simply answer a few questions, and ALIGNVOTE will tell you. It’s free, quick, and it works easily on your phone or desktop.

Are you a Seattle voter? There’s a very important City Council election coming up on August 6th. Seven of nine spots on our City Council are up for election:

  1. Visit https://alignvote.com
  2. Point to where you live
  3. Answer a few questions
  4. See which candidates answered most similarly to you to these same questions

That’s it. Pretty simple concept, right? Kind of a self-driven endorsement tool, where you, and not some third party editorial board, are doing the sorting based upon answers and weightings of issues to you, using the candidates’ own responses to the same questions.

Snapshot of the nascent site, as of 6/9/19 at noon PST

We do not endorse candidates. You should.

Please go check it out, see if it works for you.

And then, if you’re interested in the backstory and even a little kerfuffle drama, read on. I’ve also posted about me, the sole creator of the project.

Why? Lowering the Barriers To Connect, Decide and Vote

Just three in ten (30%) of eligible voters cast a vote in some Seattle districts in the 2015 City Council primaries. Think about that. Is that a healthy democracy? 7 in 10 sit it out, even though 100% are affected by the decisions made by the people elected. Year after year, those who cast ballots tend to skew older and wealthier than the general population. Is that a good thing? Why don’t more people connect and vote?

What if it could be made easier for all to identify candidates who most share the perspectives as you do?

Try this test: Can people around you name more than two people running to run our city in the election to be held less than 60 days from now? Can they name one or two who most align with their views? Unless they’re a highly involved voter, or an activist for a specific set of causes, they are very unlikely to know.

But ask the same voter to share their perspective about a City issue, and many more citizens will happily share their opinion, and it may even be strongly held. Well, with a few hours of research, it’s certainly possible to take one’s policy views and map that into some kind of candidate-match ranking. But how many citizens want to invest that hour? And do we really want to continue to entrust the recommendations to the proxy bloggers or editorial boards, whose objectives and perspectives may be far off from our own?

Bridging that gap, and connecting the busy voter with the top three candidates that most align with their own views, yes even controversial ones, is what ALIGNVOTE is all about.

People are busy, and crowded fields, while great for variety and choice, add complexity when voting day arrives. Worse, there’s very little common basis for comparison, unless you attend all-candidate forums where they’re all posed the same question. Or, more accurately, there is usually common bases for comparison, but they’re buried in answers given at all-candidate forums or endorsement questionnaires or the like.

While I wasn’t able to find Seattle-specific data, nearly twenty years ago, MSNBC set out to try to find out why so many eligible voters sat out the 2000 Presidential Election. “Too Busy” ranked as the number one reason people gave:

That’s for a presidential election. I think Democracy works best when more people participate, and I’d like to see voting percentages go higher. If ALIGNVOTE has one objective, it is to help eliminate more excuses for not voting. I do not care if it helps more people who I disagree with on certain issues vote more — that would be a success. I want more people of ANY political opinion to connect more with the candidate(s) of their choosing, perhaps donate or give Democracy Vouchers (a largely Seattle-specific idea) if they are so inclined and able. But above all, vote, even in the primary, and even in August.

I’d like to see if this is a year we can lift that voter participation from 30% to something higher.

As for the issues themselves, I’m of the adamant belief that good, intelligent and well-meaning people can and do disagree on controversial and important issues. That’s why, in most cases, issues escalate to become roiling controversies. Controversies rarely exist because people on one side are “good” and the others “bad”, it’s because there are very real trade-offs at stake, and very different and deeply held philosophies about the proper role of government in our lives. That debate is as it should be; that’s part of democracy. If the answers, impacts or solutions to complex problems were simple, they’d have been solved long ago.

But that leaves us with a problem. How, particularly in crowded fields, can we most easily identify the handful of candidates who align with our perspectives?

You can’t really Google “Which candidates most align with me on transit and zoning tradeoffs?”

Perhaps you’re a voter who, like me, thinks it should be easier to find those top three or so candidates you most align with on the issues you care about for further exploration. Or maybe you’re really sold on a candidate, and want to do a quick double-check if you’re mostly or enough in alignment on other issues… or maybe you’re open to the ideas that your ideas need adjustment.

There’s no shortage of public stances and statements made by candidates. But most people cannot possibly have time to attend every forum, every candidate meet-and-greet, read every Twitter feed, nor read every endorsement questionnaire they file.

It’s Just One of Many Tools

Fortunately, there are forums, venues, campaign events, campaign websites, endorsement questionnaires, meet-and-greets and more. You should get engaged. You should reach out. And to help with that, ALIGNVOTE links you to the campaign websites of each candidate who participates, and we’ll be adding links to resources to help learn more.

It’s just one of many tools, never intended to be the only tool. ALIGNVOTE can and will on occasion highly rank a candidate for people that individual voters feel, for other reasons, are disqualifying. It’s imperfect.

Thanks to public in-person forums, Twitter statements online, campaign websites and more, publicly posted endorsement questionnaires, and yes, surveys sent to candidates, information on top-line stances are out there. What if there were a way to encourage candidates and voters to answer the same questions and then provide information on how aligned they are? Might something like that save time?

ALIGNVOTE is in its infancy, and it will be interesting to see how useful voters find it. As with any beta product, there are bound to be things to improve, and we want to hear your ideas. Please jot us a Tweet.

Shortcomings

ALIGNVOTE is far from perfect, nor I suspect will it ever be. But before blasting it for being imperfect tool, please show me the perfect political research tool.

Still, there are very reasonable and rational critiques of this approach. I’d like to respond to some of them here:

On the Multiple Choice Format

No one who has ever taken the SAT has ever loved a multiple-choice format, and I’m not here to defend it as the best way to explore the many nuances of every issue. But such questions provide a useful filtering role, particularly if candidates and voters answer precisely the same question.

Two candidates have written in to suggest that we offer a chance to elaborate upon why an issue was their choice and we totally agree that’s a great idea. We’re currently trying to figure out how to enable that in a way that doesn’t attempt to “swing” the voter during the interview. We may very well provide a way for participating candidates to elaborate upon, or even link off to their more in-depth perspectives or website to explore a topic in a future release.

On the Wording of Questions

Questions were taken from public forums and venues. The phrasing of those questions may seem awkward at times, but that’s usually because that’s how the question was put to candidates in public forums, and we didn’t want to put words in a candidates’ mouths. Throughout, we are making reasonable, best efforts to accurately portray a candidate’s stance, and sometimes that necessitated boiling stances down to “Support”, “Sometimes” or “Never”, but that made it very clear which bucket each public statement fit into. Of course, the best insurance is to actually directly email the campaigns themselves the precise wording of the question, and thankfully the response rate was tremendous in just a few days (thank you, candidates!)

All candidates were emailed the survey last week. They were invited to double-check or in some cases offer up their answers for the first time to the questions posed.

We would be delighted to add more questions if candidates are willing to answer more. To that end, candidates were asked to craft and their own good and fair question with multiple-choice answers in the very survey they’ve already been emailed and responded-to.

On the Listing of Candidates

The list of candidates and contact information was taken from The Seattle Election Commission public disclosure website. A few never registered any email address with the Election Commission, and we were unable to reach them, but happy to do so if they read this and are properly filed. (Contact us.) And, as candidates officially drop out or don’t meet eligibility requirements, we will make efforts to remove them from the result list. There may be some lag in this, as we are relying upon the City of Seattle’s update to their website.

On the Coverage of Issues

Another shortcoming: ALIGNVOTE certainly doesn’t cover all issues, nor does it always frame the question in a complete way. But then again, does any newspaper article, blog post, debate or public speaking event fully frame or explain the nuances of every (or even any) issue?

Remember, candidates and voters answer precisely the same question.

We will happily add more questions in future rounds, and ALIGNVOTE asks each candidate to submit their own topical question for consideration in future rounds. We’ve got some good suggestions in from candidates. As indicated in the About ALIGNVOTE section, we source candidate answers from their public statements, which include their campaign websites, what they state in forums, what they say in public speech, what they write on Twitter, and more. We also directly email all candidates the survey so they can answer in their own words.

Here’s How To Add a Question

It’s early days; the platform just went live last week. So it’s hard to know everything or where this will go. But we are very open to adding more questions over time, if we can get a significant majority of candidates in a given race to answer the same question as worded.

For instance, new “lightning round” questions might be posed at all-candidate forums, and those verified asks and answers might well be added to the ALIGNVOTE survey. Candidates were also offered a space to suggest a good and fair question in their own ALIGNVOTE survey last week; the chances of those getting into the survey are greatly improved if a sizeable percentage of candidates in the race agree to answer it. If candidates can get agreement among other campaigns to ask and answer a common question with consistent multiple-choice answers, we would be delighted to look at adding it.

Candidates: You Can Opt Out

ALIGNVOTE definitely does not wish to force any candidate to participate. You can refuse to participate.

Let me be clear about what opting-out means. All filed candidates will still be listed, so your listing will not be removed. That’s because many voters who know you’re in the race might wonder why your listing is missing, and might consider it a bug or an oversight.

Should you choose to opt-out, your candidate profile box will still appear for all voter alignment interviews for the election race you’re participating in (this will grow well into the thousands as the election date approaches), but your profile listing will be shown as unranked and “refused/opted-out”, and be listed at the bottom of all ranking results. The low ranking is simply because your stances on the issues will officially be blank, and treated as unknown by the algorithm, and no “match” between your views and the ones the voter has expressed can of course be made, so your ranking will be very distant from any view expressed by a voter. If you would prefer not to participate, simply email us from the official campaign email address filed with the City. Our email address is in our About page.

We reserve the right to clearly explain to voters who may be disappointed that you decided not to participate, and encourage them to let you know if that’s something they’d like you to do. Just as is often done in public forums, we will make it clear that you were invited to participate and chose not to.

We also do plan to implement a feature whereby candidates can offer a short elaboration or explanation or perhaps link to policy-explainer on each question posed. This is not yet implemented, solely because of development schedule, not because we don’t wish to do so. This idea came to us from a candidate and we think it’s a great idea. Please note that only participating candidates who have filled out a survey and are participating will be offered this feature. In addition, any future features offered to candidates (e.g., perhaps voter count data on how many “top 3” matches you earned over time, or perhaps contacts directly from voters who indicate they want to know more, etc.) will only be offered to participating candidates. Participation is free; there is no fee.

That is to say — ALIGNVOTE is an ongoing and growing opportunity to connect with voters.

I apologize for keeping my own identity and involvement opaque until now through the data confirmation stage. Most of you have confirmed (thank you) your public views which are already on record, which constitutes the basis of these interview questions. I ask you to stay with us as we build and grow this platform, because I think it benefits voters most of all, but all of us ultimately.

Origins of the Idea: Getting Asked “Who Should Get My Vote?”

…and being unwilling to answer without knowing more.

As I’ve written about in the past on this blog, I spent much of springtime 2019 freely volunteering my time and equipment to record, broadcast and index seven different civic forums for SPEAK OUT Seattle. These free and open events happened across the city, in each of Seattle’s seven different city council districts.

I wanted to hear from and learn more about each candidate’s position. I learned a lot. Live-streaming and A/V was my volunteer role in these forums, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do so. All candidates were invited. And the vast majority of the questions — well over 70% — came from the audience in attendance. They were free and open to all. At this stage, thousands of video views have happened on these forums, they got wide coverage and replay in the media, and we’ve been complimented frequently on the professionalism and fairness of these forums.

And here’s what happened in my life in the weeks during and since.

Dozens of friends and contacts have asked me whom to vote for. But good people disagree on different issues and priorities, and it’s not my style to immediately tout people they must vote for, only look into or consider. Also, I generally like to first ask a few questions in these one-on-one interactions about how they feel about particular issues and tradeoffs, and then I point them to the candidates they might want to take a closer look at. That’s because I don’t always know where they stand and the weightings they place on certain issues.

Such interactions inspired me to see if there’s a better way to help identify “matches” between candidate and voter.

On Input from Various People

ALIGNVOTE is independent, and entirely my own creation — that includes the initial idea to build it, the actual coding of the platform, the design (such as it is), the choice of initial questions (largely driven by existing, already public Q&A where stances were made clear), the workflow, the hosting, the operations, the logo, color scheme, brand name and more. It was a significant undertaking over the past few months, but I’ve bootstrapped websites before, and this isn’t my first rodeo in that regard.

As would any builder, I did run it by a variety of sources to get feedback once it was initially publicly viewable. This started about two weeks ago, around the week of May 25th 2019 or so. Those providing input include but are not limited to a former mayor, multiple tech leaders I know, six City Council candidates, former b-school classmates, former Microsoft and Expedia colleagues, fellow volunteers at SOS, and one or two personal friends and family.

As mentioned here and elsewhere on this blog, I do volunteer for Speak Out Seattle (SOS), a non-partisan citizens group where civil discourse is welcome, and which seeks effective solutions to regional issues.

A couple of leaders of SOS first saw this tool two weeks ago, in late May 2019, when I sent them a link of the ready-to-go site for feedback. That was the first time they saw it; a couple weeks ago. None of the comments received from any person or entity involved the selection of, changing of, or altering questions, because by design, most of them were drawn from public forums, where candidate statements are already on the record. People I ran this by had no input on which questions were chosen.

I also ran it by a couple City Council candidates late last week right after the surveys were emailed to all reachable/registered campaigns (and thus other candidates saw it simultaneously. No City Council member influenced the choice of questions either.

One candidate did quite clearly reply back to me to request information on who was behind ALIGNVOTE, and indicated she wanted to know before answering. I replied via email the following day without naming myself, giving her the accurate information that I’m an independent voter in Seattle and that ALIGNVOTE, the project, was unaffiliated with any political party or campaign. I also indicated on the website in the About section that while ALIGNVOTE is organizationally independent, it was built by a human and that human (me) does indeed have political opinions. No one from “Safe Seattle” was ever shown this tool in preview form, nor have I yet discussed ALIGNVOTE with leaders of that media site as of this writing, Monday June 10, 2019.

ALIGNVOTE has a very modest budget at present, which I pay for entirely out of my own pocket. I am the sole director of the project, and we do not make (or seek) any revenue or external funding at this time.

So in sum, schedule-wise: emails were sent to candidates the middle of last week (Weds, Thurs and Friday, as these campaigns were entered into the system), candidates chose (or not) to participate based on the level of information provided, and my identity is now known on Monday.

What’s Next

Now that the beta is out, ALIGNVOTE is already being contacted by other organizations that might want to use, promote, invest in or repurpose the tool.

It’s my view that candidate-finder and alignment tools have use in pretty much any democratic election at the municipal, state or federal level, and that this is more of a “platform” with software behind it which allows groups to author questions and get candidates and voters answering them. So its ambitions may start with the Seattle City Council race of 2019, but will likely go beyond it. (At present writing, I’d really love one now for the crowded Democratic primary race of 2020.) I designed the platform to be repurposable and as automated as possible. There’s a fair amount of work in the back-end which allows the races to be set up, content managed, etc. My initial project is here in the city of Seattle, but I can definitely see this being useful and licensable to other civic or media organizations who want to author their own “candidate matchmaker” services in their own local races. But that’s not yet happened; small steps today.

We will remain financially and organizationally independent of other groups, but our platform has already been, and very well could be (and I hope will be) linked-to or promoted by other media organizations or election groups in the future. It’s the Internet after all, and free websites are only a click away. We will not be preventing anyone from linking to our site.

There will be some great ideas for new questions, and we’d love to hear them. Jot them to alignvote[at]gmail.com. But keep in mind that unless ALL candidates answer these questions, ideally with some support in public venues, it may not make the cut. I could envision some kind of question upvote/downvote before it goes live. Dunno. Lots of thinking to do there, and it’s simply limited by time.

Onward

Whew! That’s a lot of information above, and if you’ve read it all, I thank you for your patience.

Like the idea? Please share it on Facebook, Email, Twitter, Nextdoor and face to face with friends and neighbors. And here’s a QR Code that you can put in printed media and flyers:

Got issues or ways to make it better? Please do send in your constructive commentary and feedback! Want to send in a welcome nod of support for what we’re up to? Jot us a note on Twitter. Candidates, if you have any adjustment to your answers or for some reason didn’t get the survey link emailed to you last week, please contact us. Thanks!

Hi, I’m Steve.

About Me

Hi. I’m Steve Murch, and I’m the sole person behind ALIGNVOTE.

I think it’s reasonable to know who’s behind the site, and I’d always planned to disclose my founding role when we rolled it out. So now that we’re in beta, let me introduce myself.

I’ve lived in Seattle since 1991. I love Seattle and the larger Pacific Northwest. I grew up on the east coast, and have lived in several different cities through college, work and grad school. I’m half Canadian. I’m a dad and a husband. I love building stuff.

I’m a very lucky tech entrepreneur who is extremely privileged. I’ve worked at Microsoft (that’s why I moved here, in 1991), Expedia, and a couple of my own startups.

I’ve worked here, taught here (University of Washington’s Foster School of Business), I’ve volunteered here (Habitat for Humanity, International Rescue Committee, Technology Access Foundation, University District Food Bank, One Sack Lunch and other organizations), donated to charities here, created jobs here, and am helping to raise a family here. Here’s my LinkedIn page if curious.

I’ve rented and I’ve owned, and have lived in Capitol Hill, Green Lake, Madrona/Leschi, Laurelhurst and the Eastside. I live and vote in D4. I ride bikes, am a Cascade Bicycle Club Member (I’ve ridden the STP and RSVP.) I drive. I take light rail (and particularly love the bike to light rail combo, personally.) I love this region.

We are smart and compassionate and innovative people here in the Pacific Northwest, and I think we can and should do better. We need to improve our policymaking and the way we talk about political issues. Good and intelligent people can and do disagree.

My Political Stances

I don’t wear either the blue or red political team jersey. Though I’ve deliberately never registered for any political party, I do have stances on causes and issues. I’m a human, and I vote.

As of about a year ago, I got involved in a couple of Seattle-centric political causes I care about, including the EHT, and overall, more effective local governance. I’m tired of just complaining about it, so about a year ago, with a little more time on my hands, I decided to start acting on those concerns.

I’m an independent, issues-oriented voter. I weight fiscal responsibility perhaps a bit more than many of my peers, because I think we could be doing a lot more civic good with our funds, and I think my fellow voters (and nonvoters) too often undervalue the importance of sound fiscal management in government. It’s kinda boring, but it matters. It affects everything we want to do. That’s because not only can better oversight do a lot more direct good, but lax oversight destroys trust and makes it far harder to raise new revenues when needed.

For what it’s worth, here’s where I land on the Political Compass (taken August 2019). Give it a try yourself if you’d like:

I don’t mind paying taxes, and our taxes are quite high, at least in an absolute sense, and have been growing higher every year. That’s partly my decision; I’ve voted for the Affordable Housing Levy, the Parks Levy, and pretty much all education levies. I cherish our environment and am happy to invest more there. I’d be happy to pay more, but I want much better assurance that those dollars are well-spent, and I don’t yet have that confidence. I like education and basic housing and food causes, because they’re basic needs that make a profound difference in people’s lives.

I have political opinions on specific issues, and my answers for ALIGNVOTE interviews (and resultant rankings of candidates) will most certainly not be everyone’s.

In the most recent Presidential Election (2016), I voted for Hillary Clinton, believing her to be the least bad of two awful viable choices we had. Before that, I was a Mitt Romney (2012) and Barack Obama (2008) voter. And in Seattle, this year, in addition to my volunteer work live-streaming forums Speak Out Seattle, I started donating modestly to some candidates (at present they are: Heidi Stuber, Logan Bowers, Ari Hoffman, Alex Pedersen and Brendan Kolding) and just last week to one PAC, People for Seattle. I did not support the Employee Hours (Head Tax), and have written elsewhere online about why I did not. My political donations don’t extend back very far; I think I wrote my first political campaign check less than 12 months ago. Though I don’t consider Amazon the boogeyman that some City Council members do, I do think they could be a better partner (as could the City Council) and I very much think that federal laws should be changed which are allowing them to have so many years without federal income taxes being owed. I also have serious concerns about the nature of truth in the digital age, fake news, bots, the benefits vs. downsides of “big tech” and more.

I like candidates who listen and have similar views on some key issues that I care about. I am not someone who feels that a candidate has to agree with all of my positions. Blah. That’s a lot of boring stuff about me, offered here because I think questions about who is behind ALIGNVOTE are warranted now that we’re officially in beta for voters.

But here’s the thing.

ALIGNVOTE doesn’t care about MY personal political stances.

The “how similarly did you answer” algorithm doesn’t care about the actual text. It’s purely a similarity score, adjusted only by the relative weightings the voter applies.

That’s as it should be. With AlignVote, YOU as a voter take precisely the same interview that all candidates are offered, and it simply ranks the level of similarity (which we call alignment) between your answers and theirs on these questions. That’s it. That one, simple premise is the essence of ALIGNVOTE.

Quick Check for Bias which ALL Campaigns Should Do

All candidates and their campaigns can easily check the internal accuracy and lack of bias by simply self-interviewing (from the same or other browser entirely.) They will be able to confirm that if they input the same answers as their known stances (i.e., pretending to be a voter with the same stances), or even simply answer closer to themselves than any other competitor in the field, they will consistently show up ranked #1. Find a discrepancy? Shout it on Twitter, provide step-by-step reproduction case, and tell me immediately about it.

If there is any case in which this is not done, that can only mean that another candidate ALSO answered precisely as that candidate did, and thus the match is equal. We haven’t seen that condition yet in numerous tests, but it’s mathematically possible. Any bugs should be reported to alignvote[at]gmail.com and we will address it right away.

A related aside: we do have one feature that’s not yet implemented — I definitely think that AlignVote should randomize display order in the case of pure ties. That’s a known feature work item, and simply hasn’t been implemented yet due to schedule, but will be implemented in the near future.

Reaction & Kerfuffle

When the sneak preview was first sent around on or about Sunday June 8, 2019, it started to get some commentary on Twitter.

I’ve received some emails from several people who love the tool. One friend who cares deeply about the 35th Avenue bike lane being restored simply weighted that issue 100 during his interview, and discovered a new candidate that he should learn more about.

The reaction is also not universally positive. Some are clearly unhappy about the lack of complete transparency during the stance confirmation phase, when ALIGNVOTE was gathering the answers to the questions via emailed surveys to all candidates late last week.

Let me explain why I chose to do so.

On Keeping My Role Mum

I have always intended to disclose my founding role on the site’s beta rollout, and since the vast majority of candidate answers are in, that day has arrived, I do so now. But for reasons that should be clear by now, I did not want my own creation of it to be front-and-center while asking candidates to complete/confirm the questionnaire, because I’ve seen the same cynical playbook that is now taking place.

The reason I held back is largely due to my volunteer role doing A/V for the for-some-reason very-controversial-to-some SOS forums.

As backstory for those who don’t know, there was a very significant but unsuccessful effort put on by a small cadre of activists to stop (i.e., shut-down) the city council candidate forums hosted by SOS before they began. Several activists strongly encouraged every candidate to opt out, and attempted to smear the organization (and by extension, its volunteers) with incorrect information, and conflate it with another organization.

Happily, this effort backfired pretty spectacularly, and ended up bringing a lot MORE attention to these open forums. Further, it showed very clearly when the videos did arrive that they’re pretty typical civic forums, comparable with all others, but yes, also covered issues of public safety, public encampment, addiction and homelessness. By drawing unwarranted controversy, they focused a big spotlight on the forums and helped more than quadruple the membership of the group. Literally thousands of Seattle voters have now seen these forums in person or online, and these wouldn’t have happened without their help. So, though it created some drama, several in SOS privately thank them for it. Sometimes, unreasonable and premature criticism is a great gift.

Now that these forums are in the past, you don’t have to take anyone’s word for whether they were fair, free and open, or whether there was any “hate” involved in the questions or answers. Simply watch the videos. But if the handful of activists’ juvenile “shutdown” efforts had succeeded, we citizens would have been deprived of a lot of opportunities to hear from our future leaders about some key issues facing the city. And dozens of candidates would have been deprived great opportunities to get their messages out in front of voters.

Nevertheless, the inaccurate smear still has purchase for some. Since I was the A/V volunteer and have made several posts on the SOS Facebook group and website, I’m pretty sure that if I had disclosed my ALIGNVOTE-founding role, there is the distinct possibility that yet another “boycott” effort would have been drummed up. That too, I think, would have deprived voters of useful information.

Now that the candidates have confirmed stances, they can certainly decide to keep their participation, as I hope they decide to do, to connect and engage with as many voters as possible. Or they can opt-out per the section above, and pass the microphone others as we raise awareness of this tool.

I do apologize to those who wanted full and complete identity information a couple days ago. Here it is now, a couple days later, and I hope you’ll accept my belated reveal, or at least wish to remain with greatest chance of matching many voters’ expressed stances.

Prediction

This will not be a tool that everyone will love. So, detractors (and, sadly, trolls) will certainly offer some strong critique. Sadly, a tiny group of activists love to play the ad-hominem approach, going after the person rather than the idea. They think that’s effective, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks scouring my fairly ample online history and persona digging up whatever they think makes their case that I’m evil, uncaring, impossibly biased, or what-have-you. I’m sure they will feel that they know my motivations or political leanings or intentions better than I’ve expressed to you above, or here on the rollout announcement.

So, if you are so inclined, I could use your support — a product suggestion, feature idea, or maybe even a kind word about this tool if you find it useful. You can follow me on social media at @stevemur, and the platform at @alignvote:

Updates

Monday, 10:04AM: For just a tiny glimpse into the predictable ad-hominem approach, which attempts to turn the the debate into one about the person rather than, say, reproduce-able results that can be shown in any way to be problematic, we need only turn to Twitter, not surprisingly from an anonymous account.

https://twitter.com/TitoLibido/status/1138124211182981122

As I’ve already explained, there’s a simple bias check that I encourage any candidate to do. Simply answer as a voter would with your own views, and you should always rank #1 or tied for #1 (if there’s another candidate with those exact same views.) I welcome any step-by-step repro-case that differs, because if that exists, it’s a very important bug that I’ll need to find and fix. Go.

And here’s a strong supporter of Shaun Scott and detractor of Alex Pedersen in D4 verifying that it works for him. Love to see this feedback:

And here’s a strong supporter of Zachary DeWolf seeing the same:

Why I’m Done Letting “The Stranger” Influence My Vote

The Stranger is a smug, snarky and occasionally clever Seattle media institution that makes some great nightlife recommendations. But when it comes to city politics, it’s on the wrong track.

With 50+ candidates running for City Council, many Seattle voters are going to be looking for ways to winnow down their choices come August 6th. City Council Primary Ballots are mailed July 17th.

For what are likely historical or sentimental reasons (hey, remember Grunge?), The Stranger is still, for some, an influential voice. It’s high time we put them aside and opt out of giving weight to their endorsement or lack thereof. Here’s why.

We need a more effective City Council.

Surveys show that City Council effectiveness and accountability, and its approaches to the often-intertwined issues of homelessness, affordability, mental health, public safety and addiction are all top concerns of Seattle voters. They’re important to me. Chances are, they rank highly for you too.

Yet The Stranger doesn’t appear to give much weight to these issues in their decision-making process. Their candidate selection process appears to be looking for ideological sameness to the current Council.

Let’s take a look at the Endorsement Questionnaire The Stranger’s Election Control Board sent to City Council candidates just a few days ago:

Stranger-Questionnaire-2019

Judging from the questions they ask, they seem to have no real desire to find candidates willing to prioritize City Council effectiveness and accountability, nor look the issues of addiction, opioid use/abuse, or repeat offenders squarely in the eye.

Missing From The Survey

There are numerous important topics missing from the survey:

  • What are your ideas to improve the City Council’s oversight and effectiveness?
  • The city budget is a record $6 billion, and has grown considerably faster than combined population and inflation would suggest, yet there have been numerous large-budget failures in the past five years. What would you do to address this?
  • What have other cities done to address homelessness that might make sense to adopt in Seattle?
  • What is your reaction to the recent System Failure Report on Prolific Offenders, and what would be your preferred response from city leadership?
  • What, if anything, should be done to reduce the proliferation of needles and waste in public spaces?
  • Do you think major corporations based here could be better partners in improving the city? How?
  • Do you support safe injection sites? If so, where and how would you measure success? Or, if not, why not?
  • Per-capita property crime in Seattle is now among the nation’s highest, and has grown more rapidly than most major cities in the past ten years. What do you think, if anything, should be done about it?
  • Do you support the City Income Tax, which the city is currently fighting to enact? Why or why not?
  • What changes, if any, would you make to City Council meetings and public comment period to make them more reflective of all citizens?
  • Do you feel today’s City Council is generally supportive of small businesses? If so, how, and if not, how might you improve it?
  • What should be done about the dramatic increase in people living in vehicles in Seattle?
  • What can or should be done about police attrition and departures, if anything?
  • Do you think Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) priorities should be adjusted in any way?
  • How would your approach to homelessness response look different than what we have today?

If any of these are on your mind… you’re out of luck. The Stranger doesn’t really seem to care about these issues much, judging from their questionnaire.

Worse, they appear to be looking for candidates interested in filtering out worldviews which might challenge. Note that they didn’t even get around to asking about forward-looking policy questions until the final few.

Thought Policing What Information Sources Candidates Can Consume

I was stunned by the sixth question:

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member (or disciple, or fan) of Speak Out Seattle and / or Safe Seattle?”

Why does which Facebook pages one follows have ANY place whatsoever in any way on a Candidate Endorsement Questionnaire?

Presumably, answers to this question play into their endorsement decisions; they deemed this question more important than any of the ones listed above. Do they hear no echoes of McCarthyism’s “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” in this question?

Are city leaders no longer allowed to consume certain media sources, or participate in nonpartisan civic activity?

What do you seek in a candidate — someone who listens to multiple points of view, or someone who actively filters out those ideas and data-points which might challenge their worldview?

SPEAK OUT Seattle

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I’m a volunteer member of SPEAK OUT Seattle, a non-partisan citizens group seeking more effective solutions to regional issues. We lean into difficult conversations; we’re tired of certain complex topics (like homelessness, addiction, public safety) being cordoned off by gatekeepers from polite conversation, because approaches on these issues affect us all. We also think some other regions sometimes tackle these issues more effectively than we do, and that on occasion, we might even be able to learn from some of them.

We’ve held City Council forums in every district of the city, and you can watch them in full here. We invited every candidate. The forums were free and open to everyone to attend. A full 70%+ of the questions posed to the candidates came from the audience. The forums were live-streamed for all to see (that’s been my role.)

As one commentator correctly notes, “To date, Speak Out Seattle likely does more than any other organization in Seattle to help voters get to know the more than 50 plus candidates running for city council and vice versa.” SOS advocates for, among other things, the very Pathways Home approach that we taxpayers paid $200,000 for. You can see the issues and stances of the organization right here on the SOS website: https://speakoutseattle.com/issues.

Yet we’ve been the target of a deeply dishonest, cynical and largely unsuccessful smear campaign by a handful of Twitter activists making discredited allegations. This caused a small number of candidates to mistakenly — and I think very regrettably for them — opt out of these widely viewed public forums. More than 1,000 people attended these standing-room-only forums, and they’ve been viewed many thousands of times online so far; this will only continue to grow. The publicity generated in part by the controversy has helped quadruple our membership in a single year, so for that I’m thankful. Judging from the question, The Stranger is also of the mindset that SPEAK OUT Seattle is for reasons they don’t explain, a doubleplus-ungood group to be a part of and somehow useful in determining whether to endorse or not endorse.

SPEAK OUT Seattle’s co-chair was a Bernie Sanders alternate delegate in the 2016 election, our key leaders are nearly all registered Democrats or independents. (And, FWIW, at more than a dozen SOS meetings I’ve attended, I’ve not yet heard support for Trump. I didn’t vote for him, and deep blue Seattle voted more than 80% for HRC in the last election.)

But don’t let those facts get in the way of a good false narrative. For more ways that smear campaign got the facts wrong, see this post.

The good news is that you don’t have to take anyone’s word for what SOS stands for. Simply drop by speakoutseattle.com or the Facebook group and see what issues are discussed there, and how they’re discussed. I challenge you to watch the forums and find any hint of bias or hate; we are merely bringing to the fore questions that are on many citizens’ minds these days. Or drop by the Facebook group and see how conversation is actively kept civil and largely on-point by many volunteers; a breath of fresh air in online discussion.

Judging from The Stranger‘s sixth question, these waning kingmakers of the city aren’t very happy that new voices are emerging in the civic dialog to challenge a carefully constructed narrative they’ve wanted to perpetuate. The Stranger is one of those waning kingmakers whose time needs to pass.

By the way, note the title of this form. Is there a reason that The Stranger calls their Election Board their “Election Control Board”? What precisely are they trying to control? It’s a nit-pick, but it’s emblematic of the larger theme.

Do your own research. Watch the forums, read the voters guide, meet the candidates. In the age of the Internet, there’s no excuse not to.

UPDATE: And be sure to Try Alignvote, a new site I put together which helps you find candidates most aligned with you on a set of questions.

I prefer candidates who expose themselves to MULTIPLE points of view, and you should too. Do we want City Council leaders who continue to have highly selective sources of information, and overweight certain advocates over others? I think they should listen to all voices and come to their own conclusions, not shut out or shut down sources which might challenge their worldview.

The Stranger didn’t ask “Are you a subscriber to ‘The Stranger?'” Do you read “Crosscut?” Or “do you follow Erica C Barnett on Twitter?” Or do you read The Seattle Times, or follow SCC Insight? And what about TV? Are candidates supposed unplug their TV if “Seattle Is Dying?” is rebroadcast? Or do we want leaders who are capable of consuming multiple points of view and data sources, even beyond just those that validate their own worldview? Why are the information sources a candidate receives any kind of qualifying or disqualifying notch?

We are NOT made smarter by the “filter bubble.” We are made dumber and more fragile by shutting out ideas, evidence and data which might challenge our worldview.

The Stranger: Still Good for Music & Nightlife, But Not For Making Our City Council More Effective

I’ll still be looking forward to The Stranger’s thoughts on which acts to catch at Bumbershoot, and which festivals and shows are worth seeing.

But as for letting them determine which candidates would improve the city: I’m done. So long.


On this blog, as its name and web address might suggest, I speak for myself, and not any organization. Specifically, SPEAK OUT Seattle neither instigated, reviewed nor authorized this post, nor is this any articulation whatsoever of that organization’s official position. 

On The Accuracy of Self-Reported Data

In the urgent debate around Seattle’s homelessness crisis, many articles (such as this otherwise great one in Crosscut) cite the statistic that 35% of those who are homeless in the Seattle region have some level of substance abuse. It’s often a very central part of the framing, especially by those who wish to portray substance abuse as a relatively low contributor to the problem. Among other things, presenting that statistic at face-value implies that presumably, 65% of homeless individuals don’t have any kind of substance abuse issue, so perhaps addiction is a less significant reason that causes, follows, accompanies or perpetuates homelessness.

Now, 35% is of course much higher than the national average for housed/unhoused combined, so even that level of just over a third should be alarming and worthy of investment in treatment services and treatment-on-demand, and even thoughtful consideration of increasing requirements on those who choose not to enter treatment. This is because not getting help is a danger both to themselves and in some cases, to others.

But here, I’m concerned with the presentation of that statistic itself and central reliance upon it without any context.

Too often left unmentioned is this key asterisk: The 35% statistic is based entirely on self-reporting.

35%’s Origin

The 35% figure comes from the very worthwhile annual “Point in Time” report, gathered by volunteers, which King County calls the Count Us In Report. Here is the key paragraph summarizing the oft-cited statistic:

Approximately 70% of Count Us In Survey respondents reported living with at least one health condition. The most frequently reported health conditions were psychiatric or emotional conditions (44%), post-traumatic stress disorder (37%), and drug or alcohol abuse (35%). Twenty-seven percent (27%) of respondents reported chronic health problems and 26% reported a physical disability. Over half (53%) of survey respondents indicated that they were living with at least one health condition that was disabling, i.e. preventing them from holding employment, living in stable housing, or taking care of themselves.

King County Count Us In Point-In-Time Report, 2018

Survey’s Great. Interpretation? Often, Not So Much.

Please understand what I’m saying, and do not misrepresent it: The Point In Time Survey does not in any way misrepresent or hide information about what this statistic represents. The report itself characterizes it accurately.

But other articles and online discussions and political polemics which cite this statistic and accept it as the ground truth often do. Note, for instance, the framing in that Crosscut article, at least at this writing. The lead sentence of this article reads: “Contrary to what some may assume, most people living homeless do not have a substance use disorder (SUD): it’s about 35%, according to a recent local survey.”

No, that’s not what the Count Us In Report says.

It is not accurate to say that 35% of homeless individuals have substance abuse issues; it is accurate that 35% say they do.

I am in no way critical of the considerable effort to gather and report this data. I’m very supportive of it, and I applaud the many volunteers who give of their time do it. It provides extremely useful snapshots-in-time for things like total counts, vehicular counts, age, gender, regional comparisons, trends and more. That kind of data — i.e., pure counts of things which can be clearly observed and independently verified — is pretty reliable.

And what people self-report is also very useful in a way as well. I’m a fan of collecting it.

The problem I have is when essays and analyses and endless online debates blindly rely upon the “35% of homeless individuals in Seattle have some form of substance addiction” figure without stating — or in some cases, even seemingly knowing — what that figure represents.

35% of homeless individuals surveyed report that they have drug or alcohol abuse as a health issue.

What the 35% means is that, when asked one night by a volunteer stranger whether they have a drug or alcohol issue, 35% of those who are homeless respond “Yes, I do.”

We can and should ask: what is the likely accuracy of that number? Would that tend to undercount, accurately count, or overcount reality? Statistically speaking, does it tend to generate a lot of false negatives, little error, or false positives?

Intuitively, it would seem that highly likely that this is an undercount. After all, what is the incentive for someone who is not addicted to answer “Yes, I am.” Conversely, for those who are addicted — to opioids, meth, alcohol — it’s such a truism that there is denial about addiction that it’s become a cliche, at least about alcoholics in particular. To assume that 35% represents reality is to assume that denial, when it comes to admitting substance abuse to strangers, is nonexistent.

The City’s Own Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma

Even the City itself has data which is very hard to square with a 35% addiction rate figure.

In the City’s own case against Purdue Pharma, it says: “Seattle’s Navigation Team (…) estimates that 80% of the homeless individuals they encounter in challenging encampments have substance abuse disorders.”

Seattle v Purdue 1:17-md-2804-DAP p8 par18

Now, this is only for those “challenging encampments” encountered by the Navigation Team, and it doesn’t count those homeless individuals living in private or publicly funded shelter. But note too that the lawsuit is focused on opioid abuse, not the broader alcohol and meth (fastest growing) addiction issues. It is very hard to square the 80% substance-abuse figure in this subsegment with an overall 35% rate, unless one assumes that the other segments have dramatically lower than US average level of substance abuse, essentially 0% substance abuse of any kind, which seems unlikely.

Page 32 of the Count Us In Report, embedded below, shows 41% of the homeless population living in unsheltered tents/encampment/streets and another 16% living in vehicles, with both segments growing rapidly:

Further, the Seattle Navigation Team reports than in cleanups of camps, about 80% of them have needles and other physical evidence of substance addiction. That’s of the needles not taken and/or disposed of prior to the final closure, and left behind.

And in the Seattle Is Dying piece, it was very anecdotal and not at all scientific, but it sure did seem like those people interviewed with direct knowledge — the reporters and first responders and even at least one individual who has spent years in either encampments or have reported on them claim a much higher level than just 35% — most saying “100% or close to 100%.”

How can the self-reporting be so low, but these datapoints above be so high?

Do Studies Measure Accuracy of Self-Reporting? Yes!

Surely, this problem has been studied before. What’s the accuracy rate of self-reporting when it comes to substance abuse? Are there studies which ask people and then, say, do lab tests to verify truthfulness?

Initially, I ran across several studies that showed a shocking 89%+ accuracy rate overall, and was quite surprised by them. That doesn’t match my initial intuition. That is, when some stranger asks you about potentially illegal activity, or activity that might make you ineligible for services, or activity that might cause incarceration or at a minimum carries at least some stigma to many, that you’d answer honestly ~90% of the time? Seems odd. Can that really be true?

False Negatives are Very High for Those Not Seeking Treatment

But then I read The Impact of Non-Concordant Self-Report of Substance Use in Clinical Trials Research, which really made total sense to me, and resolved the basic question. There are two ways this ~89% accuracy estimate is an overestimate in situations like the Point In Time overnight counts.

Essentially, the super-high 89+% overall accuracy rates are generally for studies either of (a) people who have decided to seek treatment — e.g., they’re already in the lab and know or think a test is about to happen OR (b) studies which blend the overall population, which has an overwhelming number of non-addicts (90.4% of Americans haven’t used hard drugs in the past month, according to NIH.)

That is, for the individuals in former group of studies (those who are seeking treatment), there’s a very strong incentive and desire to be accurate — and knowledge they’ll likely be lab-tested on it anyway. And for the latter group, the overwhelmingly high number of accurately-answering subjects in the population (i.e., those who have no incentive whatsoever to create false positives) swamps the weighted average accuracy for the group as a whole and brings the forecast accuracy artificially higher.

Toward a Better Estimate

I’m no expert, but it feels like much more likely that 35% — the self-reported rate — is the floor of the accurate normal distribution range, and an implausible one at that. In other words, the notion that 35% represents reality is highly unlikely. Accepting that statistic as reality essentially implies that you believe that 100% of all respondents will answer a question like “Do you have a substance abuse health problem?” honestly (unless you believe that those who aren’t addicted will somehow decide to state that they are, in large numbers), and no study suggests that they do.

There are almost zero pressures on the true number being lower than what is self-reported, and significant evidence that the false-negative rate can be at least 30-50%+. And the true range is very sensitive to your view on the level of error in reporting. If you think that the error rate on the sample is 50% — and again, it is intuitively entirely due to false negatives — you end up with a true substance abuse rate in the surveyed population of 70%, not 35%.

To me, if you gross-up the self-reported 35% estimate by a more reasonable factor given the likelihood of false negatives, you end up with a more plausible, more aligned, and much more compatible with the City’s own lawsuit true addiction range of 45% (that’s quite conservative) to 70%+.

When talking with one acquaintance whose (multiple) loved ones have directly suffered from addiction, service providers and doctors generally have told them that self-reporting is usually off by a factor of 2 to 3x. (Solely relying upon this anecdotal feedback, even 70% would be low.)

At a minimum, when people cite the 35% statistic, I think we should encourage an asterisk that this is self-reported data — what people say about themselves.

Update, October 8, 2019:

The Los Angeles Times pursued its own analysis of Los Angeles, and compares the counts to self-reporting, pretty much fully agreeing with the estimates above: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-07/homeless-population-mental-illness-disability?fbclid=IwAR0JZSWG4N2791Gour_KYjh9ZSuBpTXmAjHgSRJI71lPegpmSUWezzabcqE

Reference

nihms-763177

FINALDRAFT-COUNTUSIN2018REPORT-5.25.18

Bridging Seattle’s Homeless Divide: Toward Common Ground

Fears matter, and they often prevent action.
Each side of the debate needs to have a cogent, believable answer for the other side’s worst fears. That’s currently missing from the debate. But only then can we make progress.

I’m lucky to have very smart, good faith, prominent and well-intentioned friends on both sides of the “Seattle is Dying” debate. They sincerely differ in their perspectives — both on what the severity of the problems are as well as how to improve our city.

On one side are amazing leaders like Jonathan Sposato, Chairman of Geekwire, gifted founder and leader of multiple successful companies and acquisitions, speaker, author and civic thinker, philanthropist and long-time personal friend. On the other side of the ideological divide are friends like Christopher Rufo, accomplished PBS and feature film documentarian, author and radio/television personality, one-time Seattle City Council Candidate, and now conservative activist. To overgeneralize, these perspectives are from the left and the right, respectively.

Each are exceptionally smart, well-intentioned, creative, accomplished and well-informed. Each of them value evidence and data. And, knowing them each personally, I guarantee they each want, at the most important high-level, the same general outcomes with respect to homelessness and addiction: fewer people homeless, more compassion and care for those in true need, increased public safety, and fewer people addicted.

So why is reaching consensus on what to do so difficult? Is it just because one side believes a problem exists and another side doesn’t? Or is it because one side is “compassionate” and the other side just isn’t? I don’t think so.

In listening to what each side is saying and watching what they are doing, it’s plain that each side not only wants their solution enacted, but very much wants to prevent the other side’s solution due to real and valid fears.

The left does not want the right to see its vision realized because of certain valid fears, and the right does not want the left to see its vision realized because of certain valid fears. In several ways, these desires to “block” the other side’s framing/approach/solution outshine their own desire to see their approach enacted. As a result, each side spends an enormous amount of energy on the friction itself, fighting against the other’s approaches, rather than cogently advocating for their own. That’s why so much of this “battle” is spent trying to define and capture the framing, the rhetoric.

But while we debate words, framing and narrative and castigate the other guys in an endless tug-of-war, we’re not actually moving toward a solution. The emergency continues to worsen.

Thus in my view, an opportunity for progress is for each side to clearly understand what large and valid fears the other side has, and try to minimize those opposing fears with a specific action plan they publicly commit to.

No matter which side you’re on, stop for a moment. Ask yourself: can you honestly articulate, without any demagoguery, the other side’s worst fear about your “side’s” approach? Now, what do you say which to them would allay that fear? What data can you bring to bear, and what level of trust can you offer which bolsters it?

Can the right minimize the left’s fears, and assure their approach won’t result in mass incarceration and vilification of those who most need our compassion? Can the left minimize the right’s fears, and assure that their approach won’t result in unending taxation, inbound growth, homelessness spending, addiction and property crime growth?

Do that, and each side might spend a little less time trying to prevent the other side’s vision and more time finding common ground.

The Right’s Real and Valid Fear about the Left’s Approach

From the right/center-right, one real fear is an unchecked expansion of uncoordinated, unmeasured municipal largess and permissiveness that at every step penalizes the law-abiding and taxpaying.

Listen to, and don’t disparage, the business owners in Seattle Is Dying: those people feel unheard and unfairly treated. The fear-driven debate which erupted after this special shifted quickly to the broadcaster itself (KOMO/Sinclair) and whether one of many individuals shown actually had shelter. But the post-broadcast debate notably hasn’t ever really focused on the shopkeepers’ needs, nor what they are saying or experiencing, nor the taxpayers’ fears that the track we appear to be are on is uncapped. They are the ones doing the work to pay the taxes that we as a city use, and their fears are valid. One such business owner is so fed up and so frustrated with a lack of responsiveness from civic leaders that he’s jumped into politics, not having wanted to as any kind of career path. There’s dramatically rising property crime vs. other cities, visible addiction, mental health crises, property crime and growing trash. There’s been an expansion of a dual system of justice which lets some people get away with illegal behavior that we, the funding taxpayers, still have to abide by.

But by far the biggest fear underlying it all, I think, is the lack of any kind of limiting principle of largess/permissiveness/measurement, which suggests the growth in investment and resources has no end. For those who believe in supply and demand, it makes intuitive sense that being comparably — and now, famously — more generous or lenient than any other region with benefits and/or prosecution (or lack thereof) will only cause the problem to grow, as people are indeed mobile. These fears to me seem justified — the biggest growth in Seattle’s homeless population have been from those living in vehicles, either cars or RV’s.

To see this fear in action, let’s say 12,000 new permanent units are funded with wraparound services. Great! I support that. Lots of taxes and/or reprioritization needed. Outstanding; let’s do it.

BUT — Unless we define measurements and limits, we will only get an influx of MORE people seeking free shelter due to our comparative generosity, and then we are back where we started.

So, to the left: what in your plan specifically prevents this? And in that world where shelter is available, are you prepared to mandate treatment for those who are addicted, and mandate that people cannot just set up tents or sleep on sidewalks? And is your model that these 12,000 are static and will grow no further? What gives you that confidence given the data? Does it somehow go down if Amazon slows hiring? What gives you that confidence? If we had 12,000 or even 15,000 units, is that really enough, or only for the next year or so? I certainly know that under such a regime, Seattle is where I’d like to be from anywhere in the nation or world. The frustration expressed by the Employee Hours Tax came from this sense of misallocation of resources, dual-system of justice, and knee-jerk turn to “it’s a resource problem: citizens, pay more, or you are uncompassionate, or simply shills for big business.” But only 7% of Seattleites believe that the problem is first and foremost a money problem.

The Left’s Real and Valid Fear about the Right’s Approach

From the left/center-left, the fear includes embracing, validating or institutionally endorsing an overly punitive and carceral and vilifying/dehumanizing approach, which too-hastily imprisons and denigrates people for being poor, many of whom got displaced or into their situations due to no fault of their own. In short, the fears include shamefully mistreating the innocent, mass incarceration, and not at all helping to rehabilitate those who need our help the most. It fears an overly harsh approach to addiction which only sends it underground and thus expands the health problem. It naturally fears what it sees as a continuum from vilification to “othering” to reprehensible forces like white nationalism, fascism and more.

So, to the right: what mitigates these fears? I’d say more investment in services, a more rational and compassionate civic dialog and way we discuss these issues, embracing housing-first with wraparound services, electing leaders and creating a system which understand that homelessness is not a monolith, a more personalized approach throughout their leg up, mental health services, and housing. Speak Out Seattle advocates for all of these things. I’m ready and willing to invest, but hold on — not until we understand what prevents unlimited inbound growth, and not until we better manage our existing funds.

It’s my view that we need to interrupt the “compassion” vs. “uncompassionate” argument. It’s not getting us anywhere. We are never going to convince each other that the other side is more “compassionate.” The fight for the moral highground has left a lot of people on the battlefield and alienated far too many potential allies. There’s a fatigue by those of us who have continued to fund and help and fund and then watch the results — they are not going in the right direction. And no amount of PR is going to gloss over the fact that Seattle has a problem in addiction, per-capita property crime that dramatically exceeds most other big cities, and rudderless municipal government on this issue.

We should recognize that it is neither cold-hearted nor unusual to have differing levels of compassion (and therefore generosity and related asks) for people based on ability, choice, luck, effort and circumstance.

Unfortunately, as with so much political discussion these days, a ton of energy is spent trying to frame the problem, define the words used, label the other side, and “seize the narrative.” Is it working? The first battle is over language; unfortunately, too much of it has stayed there.

Can each side take steps to minimize the other side’s fears?

To the left, what is the concrete, limiting principle that assures your ideological opponents that it’s not unlimited growth in the problem? What’s your evidence that backs up that view? Is there any failsafe which prevents inexorable expansion? What’s the maximum investment you expect, and the measures you have in place to know if your solutions are tracking well? What measurement would you allow? What concrete steps would you take to stem the frequent offender problem? What hard “asks” would you be willing to require on people seeking taxpayer-funded services, varying by circumstance of course? Or, do you have a different argument as to why the growth and spending will not be boundless? If so, what’s your evidence for that view? Allay those fears.

To the right, what can you do to assure your approach is compassionate and well-targeted, and not part of a march toward “othering” and imprisoning people for bad luck, treatable addiction or mental health? What about those many who are mentally ill, or fleeing abuse, or LGBTQ youth who may feel they have no support structures, or those who are incapable of work? Can systems or watchdogs be put in place which mitigate those fears?

See also: Fixing the Homeless Crisis

When Prophecy Fails

Image result for leon festinger

Flipping channels today on CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere I’m reminded of a famous book in social psychology.

Social Psychologist Leon Festinger, the same researcher who coined “cognitive dissonance,” released a fascinating book in 1956 called When Prophecy Fails.

When prophecies fail, the most fervent believers often double-down on their original beliefs, asserting that their very actions and diligence were precisely what prevented the dire prophecy itself. That is, bad things would have come true had they not acted.

It began when Festinger stumbled on a story in his local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from Planet a Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood.” Budding Scientologist Dorothy Martin of Oak Park, IL typed out a dire prediction: a devastating flood would arrive just before dawn on December 21st, 1954 and consume the earth. (In Festinger’s subsequent book, Dorothy Martin was given the alias Marian Keech.)

A small but fervent apocalyptic cult formed around Keech’s prophecy.

Dozens of people believed. They gave away worldly possessions, left jobs, dropped out of college, even left spouses. In so doing, their own actions cemented their certainty and demonstrated their commitment to the prophecy. They reinforced one another.

Yet December 21st, 1954 came and went uneventfully. The prophecy never happened. So what became of those who believed so fervently in the prophecy? It turns out most of them believed even more strongly that they were right. But how?

About 4AM that morning, their leader told them at they had been spared because of the “force of Good and light” that the group members themselves had spread. And because of this, most of them ended up believing in the cult even more fervently.

In the book, Festinger and his associates recount how they had inflitrated Keech’s group, and they provided this sequence of events:

  • Before December 20. The group shunned publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 am, December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 am. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 am. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 am. Another message by “automatic writing” is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

(above bullets from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails)

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing: After the predicted Apocalypse was disproven, most of the believers became more fervent in their belief that Keech was a prophet. A new justification had taken hold among the true believers: the prophecy didn’t come true because those who fervently believed, simply by the strength of their belief, were able to hold off disaster.

Festinger stated that five conditions must be present if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a disconfirmation:

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he or she behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

It will be interesting to watch what happens in the wake of the Mueller investigation whether people (appropriately) move on to other areas of concern or whether they seek to confirm that their actions actually prevented that which they thought would happen.