Politics in your pocket

There are a lot of apps for that

By Laura Haight

Social media and mobile apps have been critical elements of the communication engine in oppressed and remote parts of the world for a decade.

The wide availability of smartphones has helped bring communication and commerce to remote parts of Africa where traditional phone lines and banking could not reach, insurgents in oppressed regimes around the globe have used social media to distribute images, videos and news when traditional outlets were barred, and now traditional social media platforms and apps are joining the political quagmire in the US.

This week, Facebook launched Town Hall, part of an ongoing project to enable greater "civic engagement" for its massive user base. Town Hall connects you with your elected officials making it one-touch simple to call, text or email them. Town Hall has no specific political leaning, nor is it focused solely on the federal government. 

Town Hall is just one of a ballooning genre of apps. Red, purple or blue, there's an app for you. Here are some more.

5 Calls (iPhone, Android, website) is definitely geared toward resisting Democrats. Its goal is to "turn passive participation into active resistance." And it does make it easy. Start by adding your zip code (you can add your address, but for security purposes, you might want to start with a zip only). Then the app displays a menu of current issues and, if applicable, the days votes are scheduled. Selecting an issue gets you a rundown on the topic. If you choose to call your representative, the app dials the number and provides a script you can follow. You are also asked to enter the call result (Unavailable, Made Contact, Left Voicemail) to add information to the database. 5 calls makes it easy to get personal about politics. Phone calls and personal letters, according to experience political operatives, are the most important way to make politicians take you seriously. 

Countable (iPhone, Android, website) is more bipartisan. You pick the issues that you are interested in from a list that covers everything from Abortion to Work, or you can choose from a home page list of current topics on the federal agenda. These may be agency rules or regulations, presidential executive orders, or legislative votes. Countable delivers an overview of the action under consideration and a pro and con argument. You can cast your vote, get deep in the weeds on the topic, track the action as it wends its way through the federal bureaucracy, see how your legislators line up, and add your comments to the discussion. A lot of the comments look well thought out without the usual screaming and vitriol. At least, so far. You are asked to save your address to validate for lawmakers that you are a constituent. That's a privacy consideration you will need to balance against your civic interests.

Popvox (website only), which takes its name from "Vox Populi" (the voice of the people) is also bipartisan. It focuses on what is happening in Congress now. That makes it easy for you to call your representatives with an immediate call to action on items that are right in front of them. You can track bills through committee action, which is critical. Usually, a bill doesn't get out of committee without a good chance of approval in a floor vote. So using your voice, especially if you have a local legislator on the key committee, at this stage can be very valuable. Popvox also has a States section where you can find information on more local activity, what bills your state legislators are sponsoring or signing onto. You can follow a legislator or a bill, indicate your stand on it and then have that message delivered to your elected officials. 

Politomix (iPhone, Android, website) is a news aggregator that draws articles from 40+ sites from the left, right and mainstream. From Alter.net to The Washington Post, you can customize your feed to fuel your particular partisan stripe or scan through the mass of media communications with headlines in blue, red, or black identifying the ideological position of the source. I downloaded the app and reviewed the website, finding the website - even on the smartphone - a better alternative. But if you really want to see what the other side is reading, and why they think the way they do (whoever they are to you), this is the place for you. 

Stance is a simple solution to a very common problem: time. Calling your elected officials has become a lot more popular, so the lines are often busy and staffers are often tied up. Stance deals with this one issue quite simply – your grandmother could use it. Enter your address, select the official you want to call, dictate your message. Stance will deliver it overnight when lines are not busy along with your address for constituent verification. There are no scripts here, so you need to know your message. 

What apps are helping you get or remain engaged with our new political realities? Comment, email or share. We the people really want to know.