News We Can Use

Yes – reading or listening to the news can be a pretty depressing activity these days but it doesn’t have to be that way, there are a lot of really good journalists out there doing their best to help us understand the choices we will have at the ballot box next year. If we could all spend just 30 minutes per week going through these steps and documenting the useful news we find we can actually build a better news database. Here’s how:

 Find your District. This lookup tool at Govtrack makes it a snap to find your district and current representative. Jot it down and you won’t have to repeat this step each week.


twofingerssm Find out who is running in the primary and general election. Ballotopedia makes this easy. Click on the link then locate your state from the list at right and then open your district page to find candidates running from both parties. Note – you will find both the primary date and deadline to file at the top left of this page so you can check back periodically until the filing deadline to see if new candidates have announced. Once all the candidates have filed you can skip this step too.

three fingers sm    Open up your favorite news search engine and see what you can find. Both Google News and Duck Duck Go News can be useful for this and it might be instructive to see the different results you might get. I’m going to suggest four simple searches to begin and then offer a few general tips.

  1. Basic name search. Paste in the incumbent’s name in the search box and let er rip. Note – if your representative has a common name putting quotes around the name may help refine the results. You can also add the word congress to limit results if necessary
  2. Now do the same thing with each challenger’s name 
  3. At this point, depending on your district, you might have a bunch of policy-based articles. But if they don’t appear to be specific try to find a story that compares the candidates by putting both names in quotes in the search box
  4.  If articles seem to be short on policy try adding any of the following along with each candidate’s name: proposes, proposed, sponsored, suggests, outlined.

fourfingerssm.jpgTake 2-3 of the best articles you can find and enter them in our Better database so we can all see approaches being covered in other parts of the country that we might want to ask our own candidates about closer to home.


 – I promised you could do this in 30 minutes or less but you have to help. Stories about policy are hard enough to find, if it doesn’t look like it is about a proposed policy it probably isn’t. Take it from someone who’s been doing this a long time, If you’re not careful you can spend a whole afternoon doing this and thus, will probably not ever do it again.

 – Resist the temptation to read news about other stuff, including national politics. Your favorite cable news channel has got that covered for you, this is about something else. 

 – If you find that a particular word associated with a candidate you are searching is throwing off the results you can exclude a word in either of the search engines above, I will show an example in the video walkthrough soon.

 – If you want to go all Boolean – you can. Try adding the candidate’s name in quotes, a space and then AND (proposes OR proposed OR sponsored OR outlined OR suggests). Add congress, if necessary, to limit the results if there are still rogue returns.

 – Save your searches. Either of these search engines will allow you to save your results so it’s easy to go back and see what’s new next week.

Last but not least, in fact most. We can’t build this unless a lot of us do it. At the end of every week, please pass this page on to two more people (preferably people that live in a different town) and ask them to do this too. Together, we will find and elect better.



Looking for Better

Let’s face it, you probably already know how you plan to vote next November. Aside from which two candidates are running for President, a choice most will make based on the party you identify with or the person you don’t want to have win, you could almost fill out the rest of the ballot today – a year before the 2020 election. Ask yourself, deep in your heart, if this isn’t true.

There is no judgment here. All of the evidence suggests that not only is this true but most of us are complicit in this reality. But isn’t it more than a little unsettling since we tell ourselves we live in a representative democracy?

Below is the latest summary from a site called Cook Political Report, which is widely viewed as an accurate and unbiased source of insight on American politics. It shows that only about 21 percent of the 2020 races in the House of Representatives are listed as anything other than “solid seats” for one party or the other. That is, we already have a very good sense of how 79 percent of House races are going to go next fall.

Cook Political Report 11/19

The Senate is slightly more competitive, but even incorporating the 35 Senate seats that will be filled in the next year, about three quarters of the races for Congress are already likely decided with the vast majority of those going to incumbents. The irony of this is that recent approval surveys of Congress suggest that about 25 percent (actually a slight increase) of Americans think Congress is doing a good job. So – about three quarters of the races are already decided and about three quarters of us think Congress is doing a bad job….weird right?

I came across a Vox article that is now four years old as I was going through the news the other day and I think it explains the problem here. It is entitled Confessions of a Congressman (you can see why it enticed me..wonkiness and voyeurism all in one package!) and it was penned by a member of Congress, though since we don’t find out who wrote it I have no idea if they are still a member. However, all “9 secrets from the inside” seem even more prevalent and problematic today than they did when it was first written. There aren’t a lot of bright spots to find in the article but it ends this way…”

“Get over your nostalgia: Congress has never been more than a sausage factory. The point here isn’t to make us something we’re not. The point is to get us to make sausage again. But for that to happen, the people have to rise up and demand better. “

After four months of these posts, it’s probably pretty obvious that I agree with the three primary points made in the article. Congress is broken, it is vital that we fix it now and it has to be us that makes that happen. I hope you agree too but if not here’s another Vox article that makes a pretty persuasive case on the first two points. Fair warning – it’s Craibian in length.

But the congressman who wrote the article said “the people will have to rise up and demand better” not “Bill Craib needs to blog more and you poor suckers have to read it.” If we are going to change the way Congress works then many, if not most of us, will need to work together to make it happen. So what does better look like and what can we do to bring it about?

The concept of better in this case is simple, it is members of Congress actually proposing something and working together to solve problems. That is obviously difficult while there are impeachment hearings taking place, but even while that process is playing out and certainly afterward, Congress is going to have to function properly in order to address some serious issues facing our country.

Better looks like this story about how our local congressman in Vermont thinks rural areas could address a serious shortage of nurses. These shortages are acute today in both red and blue states, there is progress to be had. It isn’t a salacious or gripping headline, it isn’t even about a big policy shift. Importantly, there is no guarantee that the approach being proposed would have the desired impact. But it does represent an idea that a few people have about a way that Congress could act to improve the lives of citizens. If the news we read and listen to every day had more stories like this, that would be better.

How do we bring that about? Tomorrow in this space I will propose three steps all of us could take in less than a half hour per week to move toward a better, more functional, Congress.

52 Weeks

Happy Election Day!

That’s kind of a joke, see, because its pretty clear that Americans have scarcely had an unhappier election day. There are elections taking place across the country today but those in three states seem likely to have national impact; Kentucky and Mississippi will vote for governor and in Virginia the entire state legislature is up for grabs. You can listen to a detailed account of the former here and the read one on the latter here. But the message in all three races is similar: more than anything the candidates say, do or have done, these votes are about Donald Trump.

Democrats are angry about the President “hobnobbing with dictators” and anxious to show him and his supporters that they are on their way out by voting for the Democrat. Supporters of the President say the impeachment process is “totally ridiculous” and want to show “the enemy” that they won’t stand for it by voting for the Republican. Isn’t there more than this?

Seriously, where does this leave us? 52 weeks from today we will, assuming the President is still in office, all get a chance to vote for or against Donald Trump. If he is not, the same will presumably be true of Mike Pence. But there will also be 34 elections that day for the the US Senate and 435 seats in the House of Representatives. If all we are going to do that day is vote for a straight party ticket couldn’t we just tell the candidates to not bother making the signs? Skip the attack ads (no one will miss them) and donate the money to charity instead…this idea is growing on me. We will put a D and an R in their respective places down the ballot and move on. Nate Silver could probably give us a pretty good guess…today…at what the 117th Congress will look like. Spoiler alert…it may not look as different as you think.

“But wait”, I can hear you saying. “We’ll have Elizabeth Warren, or Joe Biden or Bernie or Mayor Pete in the White House, we’ll be back to the good old days”…of 2015. It wasn’t that long ago folks. There were things about our country that needed to be fixed then, they need to be fixed even more now. But without a Congress made up of people that can think for themselves, that are running on some idea other than being an alternative to the “enemy” on the other side of the ballot, we’re likely headed for the same outcome.

But we can do something….and we don’t have to wait a year. First, if you are in a state where elections are being held today, and most are, vote…duh. And if those local elections are somehow free of partisan nonsense then revel in the way our process is supposed to work….votes based on ideas.

Next – just 17 weeks from today is Super Tuesday. Yes, it’s a big day in the race for the Democratic nomination for President. But it’s also the state primary day in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, California and Texas (together these states make up more than one fourth of the US House.) Remember that feeling of going to the poll in November and thinking, I don’t like either of these people? This is your chance to do something about it….pay attention to what the candidates are saying…now.

Starting the first week of December 435 Voices will begin looking at the districts in those five states; looking for ideas…not dogma.