Here is a quick guide to and critique of three on-line tools that can help Berkeley voters make their choices in the upcoming election:
This past week Berkeleyside, a local news site, and MapLight, a locally headquarted non-profit corporation teamed up to unveil "Voters Edge Berkeley", an on-line guide to Berkeley ballot measures in the upcoming November, 2012 election. The new web site offers a guide to Berkeley's ballot measures. For each measure a quick summary is provided along with an assessment of what a yes or no vote implies. There are lists of endorsers for and against each measure, links to related news articles and more.
Daniel G. Newman, MapLight's president and a co-founder, tells us that the data is being entered by Berkeleyside. "We're providing the technology and the partner organization is providing the content. [....] It's kind of like a WordPress for ballot measures," he quipped. Newman went on to explain that the aim is to provide factual, non-partisan data to voters with a special emphasis on details that shed light on money's influence on politics. (The "Map" in "MapLight" is from the acronym for "Money and Politics".) In that same spirit of creating a community resource, Berkeleyside has accepted and integrated some corrections and additions from this author and other journalists not affiliated with Berkeleyside.
Update (Oct 2): Campaign funding data is absent for most Berkeley measures. Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeleyside explains "The reason there isn't a lot of financial info on Voter's Edge is because the committees only have had to file preliminary reports. More info will come after Oct 5 and 25. "
Pros: It's a neat idea and the interface is slick and appealing. The endorsement lists, even if incomplete and lacking citations, do seem to collect in one place some data not collected elsewhere. The web page "widget" that shows off Voters Edge Berkeley is available for use by other sites. For example, it is being added to the Berkeley Daily Planet site.
Cons: The summaries of measures, the "what your vote means" sections, and the "campaign arguments" sections tend towards the biased. The materials the city itself publishes cover the same topics more neutrally. Also, in spite of the MapLight mission, there isn't a lot of data about the money behind the various measures.
Recommendation: Check it out and have fun. Figure out what you like and don't like about it. If you think it might be helpful pass that information along to Berkeleyside and / or MapLight.
Other Recommendation!: During our interview Newman suggested: "Make sure you tell people that, you know, all Berkeley voters vote in California too and we have this beautiful [state issues] site, too, so tell them about that." This author is happy to do so ....
At the state level, MapLight has had greater success gathering interesting data. Here's something you might not know about Prop 37, a state measure that would require labeling of certain genetically modified foods: Around 21% of the funding for the "No on 37" electioneering money was spent by Monsanto! On the other hand almost 9% of the much smaller budget for Yes on 37 electioneering is from Dr. Bronner's of soap fame. Who know's what that means but it is no doubt a starting point for many interesting inquiries.
Pros: The state-wide page really shows off the work MapLight has been doing. State issues come with a lot more readily collectable data than Berkeley ballot measures.
Cons: As with the Berkeley version of Voter's Edge, don't rely on the site as an objective source of a bill's meaning or implications. Also, the lack of systematic citations make it awkward to use this data journalistically and with rigour.
Recommendation: Check it out and have fun. Figure out what you like and don't like about it. If you think it might be helpful pass that information along to MapLight.
Update (Oct 3): MapLight points out that their site has links to citations (look for the circled-i). Our spot-checking of the entries for Measure 37 found that these citations weren't always accurate. MapLight also replied that "The info in the Summary section for each ballot measure, including What Your Vote Means, Financial Effect, and Campaign Arguments, is reprinted from the California Secretary of State, which we consider to be the most objective source available." After some digging to find correct citations we found that MapLight's claim was partially true but that some content in this cateogry appears to be original. For example, we could not find a source other than MapLight for its description of Measure 37's financial impacts. We stand by our earlier suggestion to not rely on the site for as an objective source of a bill's meaning or implications.
It's the city's job to assemble ballot measure material for voter information packets. The City Clerk's office kindly publishes the materials on-line, well ahead of the election and before the voter information packets are mailed out. If you want to read the actual texts of measures, the city attorney's analyses, tax implications, and the campaign arguments and rebuttals for and against each measure the city itself provides one-stop shopping.
The second link above provides the financial data used on the "Voters Edge Berkeley" site.
Pros: It's official and it's the most objective record of what's literally going to be on the ballot. It's neatly organized.
Cons: The site makes for an awkward browsing experience. This contains only official voter packet data. For example, it doesn't include data about campaign funding.
Recommendation: This is the most authoritative source for hard data about what each ballot measure is.
On a personal note...
The City Clerk's web page of ballot measure information is a fine resource but as a journalist frequently wanting to page through those materials, I found the interface to be awkward. I wanted a web page that made that stuff easier to browse. So, I copied the public data from the City Clerk's page and set up an archive copy. I used some simple programming tricks to format the data in a way I liked.
Stay tuned for updates. As financial data from the campaigns rolls in, I'll investigate how hard it is to add to the browser. If it's easy enough, I'll do so.
Pros: For some, a handy way to page through the official ballot information on Berkeley measures in this election.
Cons: There is no new information here beyond what the Clerk published. For example, I haven't separately collected endorsement lists or links to news articles.
Recommendation: Check it out and have fun. Figure out what you like and don't like about it. If you think it might be helpful pass that information along to me, Thomas Lord (firstname.lastname@example.org)