Searching for substance: An exercise in democracy

Free speech is nice. But free speech that someone actually listens to is even better.

The Review-Journal has joined with a number of newspapers and organizations across the country in an endeavor to use the tools of the Internet to give ordinary citizens a greater voice in our democratic process.

The project is called and that is where you can find it online or you may link off the Review-Journal website at When you go to the Nevada portion of the website, which has been created by an organization called Personal Democracy Forum, you may ask questions in either text format or by recording your own video. Questions can be asked of the candidates in three key Nevada political races on the Nov. 2 ballot: U.S. Senate, governor and representative from the 3rd Congressional District.

The video aspect is similar to the 2008 CNN/YouTube presidential primary debates in which people around the country posed questions by posting videos of themselves on the popular video website. I must admit the decorum of that format might not have been exactly high-brow, but neither is the average voter.

One debate question came from a talking snowman, another from two self-styled red necks and a question about gun control came from a Michigan man controlling his own rifle. To some gun control means a tight pattern.

So, if you want to know what Harry Reid and Sharron Angle think about illegal immigration or gay marriage or electric cars, ask.

If you want to know where Dina Titus and Joe Heck come down on jobless benefits extension, health care reform or cap and trade, ask.

If you want to know the stances of Rory Reid and Brian Sandoval on improving the state’s education system, raising taxes and how they plan to handle the state’s looming $3 billion budget shortfall, just ask.

On people will be allowed to post questions through Sept. 14. Simultaneously people will be asked to view or read the questions being posted and vote on which are the best to be asked of the candidates themselves. On Sept. 15 the top 10 questions — as selected by you, the public — will be posted.

This past week the Review-Journal sent letters to the candidates in those three races inviting them to participate. Once the top 10 questions are posted, the major candidates will have until Oct. 15 to answer any or all or of the questions. According to Personal Democracy the answers can be as long or short as the candidate sees fit.

Once the answers are posted, the public will again get a chance to vote, this time on whether the candidates’ actually answered the questions. The voting on that will end Nov. 2, which, of course, is Election Day.

Personal Democracy describes this exercise as a way to update political debates for the digital age. "Given the capabilities of today’s interactive media, it’s now possible to continue the conversation started in television debates and newspaper coverage. Using the Internet and online video, we can:

"– Include ongoing public input on questions of interest.

"– Give candidates more time and space to give thoughtful responses, and

"– Enable voters to reward politicians with recognition when they choose substance over a sound bite."

The intent is to invigorate local civic engagement so voters can be more than spectators and become participants.

The project is funded by the Knight Foundation, which was established by the family that once owned one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains. Personal Democracy Forum, which calls itself "cross-partisan," is running the website in association with Google and YouTube. Newspapers and other organizations across the country are using their websites and resources to make people aware of the project and encourage participation.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at Read his blog at

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