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Originally published Monday, September 27, 2010 at 4:04 PM

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Guest columnist

New voters guide will heal rifts through voter education and dialogue

The new Living Voters Guide, a collaboration between Seattle's CityClub and some University of Washington faculty, attempts to better inform voters about November's state ballot issues and help them explore them through respectful dialogue.

Special to The Times

Toward an informed electorate

Please share the Living Voters Guide with family, friends and neighbors across Washington. Hang out at the website like you would a public park — a place where you can engage and explore community around you.

Go to: www.livingvotersguide.org

A RECENTLY commissioned Seattle Times poll found that Washington voters are frustrated and divided on policy questions. They trust neither party. They are disheartened by toxic partisan rhetoric and don't know where to turn for wisdom on the significant decisions before them in the upcoming election.

We have joined forces to develop a new technology that is inspired by three goals: Restoring trust in our neighbors, learning to trust our community's wisdom and demonstrating trust in President Jefferson's claim that an informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.

Most citizens see the deeply divisive political stalemate that results when we relegate the framing of political discourse and shaping of public opinion to talk-show hosts, partisans and lobbyists. To reclaim a citizen-centered democracy, to rebuild public trust and civil discourse, we're going to have to do it ourselves at the grass roots.

The Internet and the technologies that connect people through it can provide access to vast and immediate information resources, diverse perspectives and person-to-person communication.

The newly released report, "2010 Civic Health in America," finds that the Internet also can be a boon to civic engagement. Residents of "Internet households" in America have a voting rate about 19 percent higher than that of non-Internet households, and those who go online on a regular basis are more likely to be involved in offline community activities as well.

At the same time, the Internet is hardly a panacea for creating a more civil society — indeed, much of the current online discussion about political matters is anything but civil. It is essential to design new technologies that help foster deliberation and respect while still maintaining vigorous debate and free speech.

CityClub, University of Washington's Center for Communication & Civic Engagement and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering collaborated to produce a new Web-based resource to advance digital democracy in Washington state. With funding from the National Science Foundation, we developed an online resource to promote community discourse and deliberation on the nine critical ballot measures before Washington voters this November.

Our Living Voters Guide invites all Washingtonians to discuss these vital ballot measures together, to explore one another's positions, and to build a personal, customized platform that will inform their final vote.

This voters guide is co-created by everyone who participates. It evolves as neighbors across our state consider the trade-offs for each measure. It requires participants to pledge that they will not make personal attacks on others but focus on the issues before us. It invites everyone to wrestle with both the pros and cons of the ballot measures in a deliberative path toward decision making.

The language of Initiatives 1100 and 1105 is difficult to distinguish. Resolution 8225, proposing a constitutional amendment, is very technical. Several of the November measures, especially Initiative 1098 proposing a top-earner income tax, would alter the structure of taxation and financial support for public services in our state.

The decisions we make on all these ballot measures are crucial. We will all feel their consequences immediately and for a long time. So will our children.

That's why it is imperative that we consider them carefully, with due deliberation and with the benefit of community wisdom in a forum that is nuanced, pluralistic and collaborative. We need to come together as citizens to explore our electoral choices — without accusations, rancor and acrimony — knowing that we're all going to share the profit and loss generated by our collective decisions on Nov. 2.

We hope the Living Voters Guide will help build a connected and informed electorate. We hope it will inspire public trust in one another. We offer it as our own ballot initiative to reclaim citizens' power and shared responsibility for making our democracy work.

Lance Bennett is the director of the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement, University of Washington. Alan Borning is a professor of computer science and engineering at the UW. Diane Douglas is executive director of CityClub.

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