Garamendi hosts first interactive mobile town hall

February 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Town hall meetings are nothing new in politics, but this one is breaking new ground. Bay Area Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, hosted the first ever mobile town hall Tuesday night, using a cell phone app that could re-shape politics.

Garamendi spoke with his constituents over a host of Internet platforms from Facebook to iPhones and Blackberrys. He is the first congressman in the country to use Visible Vote application to connect with voters in his district.

From his office in Washington D.C., Garamendi launched the first-ever mobile video town hall. Of course he has held telephone town halls before, but not like this.

"You know it's a Skype-type thing. You can actually get your Android or your iPhone or your Blackberry or go to your computer and dial up Facebook or Visual Vote and you can see," said Garamendi.

Garamendi wanted to focus the hour-long question and answer session on rebuilding manufacturing in the East Bay.

"Most people, I don't think, won't want to stay on for the full hour, but if they want to, well, they're welcome to do so. It's free to them," said Garamendi.

The application that makes it possible was developed by Paul Everton and Jason Pritzker in Chicago.

"We had a really tough time getting in touch with our local legislatures, tried calling, phoning, faxing, and nothing seemed to work, and Paul being the software genius that he is, figured that he could come up with a better system," said Pritzker.

Their system does much more than allow video town halls. Users can look up legislation and read the bill and vote on it before it comes up for a vote in Congress.

"At the end of each week we tally those votes and send them to each member of Congress and we encourage the members of Congress to respond to that, which a lot of them do," said Pritzker.

You can post a video to your local member of Congress, track their votes and link to other voters in your district. Political consultant Chris Lehane believes the impact of technology like this on democracy is transformative.

"And you're seeing it right now in an unbelievably profound way in Egypt," said Lehane.

"Organizing that they're able to do through Facebook, images being communicated via cell phones, and it's obviously having an enormous impact," said Lehane.

Here at home, Lehane believes it will help level the playing field on Capitol Hill.

"They may not be able to pay to have a lobbyist, they may not be able to pay for themselves to fly to Washington D.C. to express themselves, but they now have a tool that allows them to express themselves and if they organize and use the social media networks that are available to them, they can really multiply the number of voices out there," said Lehane.

Pritzker and Everton promise that there are more tools on the way to their Visible Vote app. Their audience skews very young. Their vision is that one day you will be able to vote for real on your phone and that would be a huge game changer.