A tiny nonprofit operates a web site that allows citizens to weigh in on local issues like zoning changes without attending city council meeings. But there are complaints of ballot stuffing in online polls, which a little analysis shows is a credible claim.
The East Bay Express (Jeremy Singer-Vine) reports on discontent with a web site with the public purpose of increasing participation in local government. Kitchen Democracy (EIN 20-5151205 too small for a Form 990) was started by Robert Vogel and his wife Simona Carini in March of 2006.
Its web site is so well thought out and slick in its presentation that it's hard to believe that it's the work of a single dedicated couple. Elected officials and registered participants have the ability to suggest topics for discussion. For the topics suggested by participants, other participants rate the participant topics for importance, actionability, balance, and clarity. Based on the ratings, these topics are then moved to the open issues section, where participants are allowed to vote and comment on them. There are over 2,000 registered participants, but average participation in votes is a bit over a hundred.
Controversy arose because city councilman Gordon Wozniak took interest in the site, and even provided $3,000 in funding for it. The plurality of registered users are from his district, which other councilmen say is not representative of the city as a whole (apparently it is more affluent and has fewer minority residents).
In one instance, a zoning proposal to convert a garage into a restaurant (which would create local parking issues) was put to a vote on Kitchen Democracy and received an 80% favorable decision, prompting claims of ballot stuffing.
I took a look at the votes so far on KitchenDemocracy.org to see whether there were any patterns (click image to enlarge). What I found was that the average number of votes in the case of lopsided decisions (80% or more for one side) was 235, while the average close vote (less than 80% for the winning side) had only 90 votes. Three of the top four issues in total participation were local zoning issues that one would not ordinarily expect to attract wide interest, and the side favoring zoning change had margings of 70% of 235 votes, 80% of 217 votes, and 92% of 409 votes.
Kitchen Democracy as presently constituted seems like an excellent and well thought-out way for the affluent to publicize issues that they are concerned about and to make their views known to their elected officials. Anybody can participate in theory, but in practice those with a vested interest in any given subject will be able to dominate the conversation. Of course that's more like oligarchy than democracy, but nobody ever said the Internet was for everybody.