On February 2nd, 2017, in reaction to President Trump’s threats to cut UC Berkeley funding after protests on campus, undergraduate students Ash Bhat and Rohan Pai quickly designed and launched an app. Three days later Presidential Actions, which publishes and notifies users of the president’s executive orders and memorandums, reached #20 in the iTunes free news app rankings. “It is now a responsibility for technologists and tech companies to build things to educate our fellow americans,” Bhat recently said over email.
The immediate popularity of Presidential Actions, which launched its Android companion on February 7th, shows a growing demand for apps that help users track, understand, and communicate with government. The five most popular political apps — Countable, Voter, We the People, Votespotter, and Congress — have collectively gone from around 100,000 downloads between August and October to 300,000 downloads between November and January. The most popular political app today, Countable, was downloaded over 200,000 times between November 2016 and January 2017.
The history of political apps is almost as old as the iPhone itself
The history of political apps is almost as old as the iPhone itself. In early October 2008, just months after the App Store launched, the Obama campaign introduced the app Obama 08. With its simple blue interface, the app sorted users' contacts by battleground states, making it easy to call friends and family to encourage them to vote for Obama. Every major presidential candidate campaign after 2008 has designed and launched its own app.
Early government engagement apps gave users straightforward tools for contacting Congress. The now defunct Visible Vote, launched in 2009, offered tools to see how representatives were voting, weigh in on issues, and encouraged politicians to download the app to track constituents’ interests. That basic format hasn’t changed much. At their best, political engagement apps offer users the sense that government is accessible — even changeable — and that reaching our representatives isn’t just possible, it’s easy. But a great political app isn’t just about ease, it’s also about smart information, design, and a little fun.
Which of the current batch of apps delivers on that promise? I’ve spent some time playing around with the five top downloaded political apps since November 2016, according to analysts at App Annie. From emails to calls to swiping left and right (yes, Tinder for politicians is real) here’s the rundown on finding the right app to get smarter, get louder, and get things done.
By far the most popular of the apps reviewed here, Countable publishes explanations of upcoming bills in Congress, offers write-ups by actual journalists, and gives users the option to “take action.” Countable’s stated goal is to make it “quick and easy to understand the laws Congress is considering,” and to “streamline the process of contacting your lawmaker, so you can tell them how you want them to vote on bills under consideration.” The information provided in the app strikes a useful balance between understandable and aspirational — providing you with the tools to be someone who really understands Congress.
One of Countable’s best features is the weekly guide called “What’s Congress voting on?” Users see a timeline of what the House and the Senate will be voting on in the week to come, and they can navigate through hyperlinks to decode political jargon. Click on “H.R. 381: To designate a mountain in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest as ‘Sky Point,’” for example, and you’ll see a page that offers a comprehensive explanation of the bill, provides details about its sponsorship, its proposed cost, and links to press releases and newspaper articles.
Countable is simplified, but not significantly dumbed down. Once you make an account, you can see your representatives, click on them, and immediately have access to their contact information as well as a listing of their recent voting history (again, with links to descriptions of each of the bills). Countable also allows users to comment on issues, sending emails to the appropriate representatives, or video messages, which deliver links to lawmakers. Because the messages are all sent from within the app, you lose the feeling of calling or emailing your congressperson directly, but apparently that hasn’t deterred users: Countable says it has delivered over 1,500,000 messages to Capitol Hill since this past Election Day.
Download if: you have ever thought, I want to keep up with politics but I don’t know where to start!
Voter describes itself as “matchmaking for politics,” and unabashedly functions as Tinder for finding your ideal political candidate. Voter quickly verses users in the language of swiping — right for yes, left for no, and then launches into a series of questions on politically and socially relevant issues. “Fund stem cell research?” “Require body-cams on police?” “Switch to a flat tax?” “Send U.S. troops to fight isis?” There is a button users can press to get a more information on an issue — a short, simplified explanation. When a level is completed (there are five in total) the app’s algorithms compare your answers to the stated positions of politicians, and tells you which candidate is most similar to you ideologically.
“Our matching algorithm analyzes thousands of data points from multiple sources, including candidates’ public stances, voting records, speeches, and more to find the perfect candidate for you.” Users are also paired with a tastemaker, someone in media who they seem to agree with, and a political party. There’s a map that shows where — on the scale of liberal, libertarian, conservative, authoritarian, and moderate — one’s political values land. The app also has an “updates” section that gives links to news articles by other news outlets such as Fox News, CNN, Reuters, NPR, The Washington Post, Real Clear Politics, and The Hill. The app is fun to play around with — either by answering earnestly or seeing what happens if you put in the opposite of your political beliefs. There seems to be no simple way to reset the app, however, so once you’ve answered the questions it’s not clear if you can start from scratch, or have your friend try it out. Understandably, this app’s downloads in the past three months peaked on Election Day — but it has risen in rankings again since the inauguration. While the app is currently only geared toward the 2016 presidential race, and candidates for governor and the Senate, the developers say they are working on building Voter out for more elections and communities. They invite users to submit their area so they can “make it a priority.”
Download if: you enjoy quizzes and like seeing your beliefs reflected by algorithms.
We the People
We the People’s tagline is “Make your voice count,” but this platform does not offer users a way to communicate with their government. Instead, it provides a space for anonymous voting and discussion of a weekly issue. For the week of February 10th, the question posed by the app was “Do you support Trump’s immigration policy so far?” Each user answers this question with “Maybe,” “Yes,” “No,” or “I need more information,” and their votes are displayed anonymously in what the app calls a “heatmap” — a map with colored blocks indicating how people in different areas are voting. While it’s interesting to scroll around the heatmap feature to see that, for example, 48.8 percent of app users who have responded to this question near the southern border in Texas near Mexico answered “yes,” it’s hard to shake the feeling that the people on this app are mostly trolls looking to rile people up.
The app’s anonymous discussion feature is heated and polarizing — with some questions clearly engineered to get a rise. “Aside from being a full-blown racist, Jeff Sessions: Also likes kittens [thumbs down] is a white supremacist [thumbs up]” user TheAmericanRay posted on February 9th. “Whites only!” the post concludes. After reading the discussions it’s hard to know what to make of the heatmap, which has the potential to be a window outside of our social network bubbles, but seems overrun by users who may or may not be taking the app seriously.
Download if: you want to see what a polarized America looks like and are not put off by trolls.
Votespotter is a simple and straightforward application. Sign up, enter your address, and the app finds your congresspeople for you. The interface is pretty plain: there is nothing flashy or really very fresh design-wise. When you click on a representative, a page with recent bills they have voted on pops up and you can either give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to their decisions. When the “agree” or “disagree” buttons are clicked, the page redirects to the section of the congressperson’s website that sends them email. This isn’t graceful, but it’s still effective.
The email interface isn’t as simple as Countable, but it gets the job done. What differentiates Votespotter is that users reach out after their congresspeople's votes, not before. This means the app is better geared toward holding your representatives accountable in the long run — making sure that they know how you feel about the way they’re voting.
Download if: you want to keep tabs on your congresspeople or feel soothed by clunky bureaucratic dentist office-style design.
This is by far the oldest app on this list, and it’s a solid one. The Sunlight Foundation’s open-source app keeps users abreast of the goings-on in the House and the Senate. This app is, sadly, only available for Android users, and is not to be confused with the paid app “Congress” by the Cohen Research Group, available for iPhones. The app makes it easy to scroll through your representatives, organized by “following,” “states” “house,” and “senate.” The app keeps options simple and straightforward.
When you click on a representative, there’s a button to call their DC office, a link to their website and a tab to see the committees that the congressperson sits on. Congress doesn’t do anything to explain government to those not in the know, however. While it’s great to have a place to see who the members of each committee are, there is no explanation of what these committees do. Users have the option to follow bills that they are interested in in a “following” section, where they can get a very specific play-by-play of what happened that day on the floor. The app’s language is dense and technical — so it’s not friendly to novices. But if you’re familiar with the nitty-gritty of politics, can follow the language of bills, and are in the practice of keeping up with legislation, this is a great place to follow Congress. Being able to see who the sponsors of each bill are also provides an easy way to reach out about legislation that matters to you. Congress is the no frills, workhorse app of the group.
Download if: you have an Android phone and know a thing or two about Congress already (or are willing to do outside research).
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge