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Democracy goes electric

An online experiment in governance.

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Directing Democracy image

You know things are really, really broken when people start thinking it would be easier to just start all over than to try and fix what they've got. While the hyper-partisan stalemate in Congress hasn't gotten quite that bad yet for most folks, a team of Arkansas filmmakers is trying something completely different, in the form of an online project called Directing Democracy.

Over the next month, the project aims to have an online community create and deliver to Congress the first "crowdsourced bill" — a piece of legislation conceived, debated and drafted online. The website for the project can be seen at directingdemocracy.com.

Conceived by producers Gabe Gentry, Kody Ford, Mary Shutter and David Fowlkes, Directing Democracy is either going to be a triumph or a spectacular crash and burn. With a project this ambitious, there's not a lot of wiggle room in between. At the website, which went live on July 4, visitors join a community message board. Over the four weeks that started July 9, that virtual community will determine the "threshold" issue of our time, debate the issue, determine what has worked and what hasn't in current legislation, and then draft a bill by Aug. 6. After the bill has been drafted, the online community will then elect three representatives — one self-described liberal, one self-described conservative, and one independent — from a pool of nine candidates chosen by the producers. The final step in the process will be loading the three reps into a van for a cross-country road trip to Washington, D.C., stopping along the way at the homes of people who could be affected by the bill should it become law. The plan is to be in Washington by Sept. 10 when Congress returns from its summer recess, so the bill can be delivered to every member of Congress. The whole process will be filmed for a documentary that will premiere in spring 2013.

Gabe Gentry is an executive producer for the project, which has a $14,000 budget raised through the website indiegogo.com. Gentry said the idea was first conceived in 2007, when he and his co-producers started talking about the political turmoil in Washington. "We were frustrated with what we felt was a lack of candor and courage in Congress," Gentry said. "So often, real, lasting solutions were sacrificed to what was politically expedient and safe. We were all kind of lamenting all that and talking about it and trying to figure out what the potential solutions were."

Originally called "Agents of Change," the idea back then was for an 8-part PBS reality series in which three teams of three drove across the country in RVs investigating the political challenges facing America and drafting a bill. Gentry and his co-producers had gone so far as to get an agreement from two congressmen — Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) — that they would introduce the legislation that was eventually drafted.

"A reporter caught wind of it in D.C.," Gentry said. "He did some digging, and brought in some former solicitor generals to make the point that any congressperson agreeing to introduce legislation in a contest manner was in violation of their ethics. It made it sound much more smarmy than it was, but nevertheless, all the participants backed out."

With the recent rise of crowdfunding sites like indiegogo.com, however, the project got a new lease on life, though with a bit less ambitious scope. Gentry's frustration over the state of politics hasn't dimmed.

"I've voted in every election cycle that's been available to me, and I've seen a pattern in which change is glacial," he said. "I think we've entered a period of consequences for the nation after years of kicking the can down the road. I feel like there's got to be a third way."

Gentry acknowledges the Directing Democracy project is ambitious, but he said his hope is that the shared experience of creating the bill and delivering it to Congress can lead to something different. He said it's too dangerous to accept that the system is so broken that the public can't have a say in the political process.

"Everybody on the team that's working on this is realistic as to its potentially limited effect," he said. "That said, not one person who is on the project thinks it's impossible to affect major change. Otherwise we wouldn't be doing it."

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