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Training a Digital Eye on Local Elections

The State of Democracy app is sponsored in part by The NH Primary Student Convention on January 4th-6th.

Maybe you’re looking for somewhere to sound off on the fate of the Manchester teachers’ contract, or the expansion of rail service from Boston, or marijuana legalization — or even the future of the midnight voting tradition in Dixville Notch. Well, you’re in luck: There’s an app for that.

Earlier this year, a team with ties to some of the biggest social media platforms launched a new smartphone application — “Brigade” — that’s pitched as a way to increase civic engagement and give people a new forum for sounding off on policy issues.

(You know, instead of getting into an argument with your cousin’s roommate in a comment thread on Facebook.)

Brigade has since piloted a new feature called “Ballot Guide” focused specifically on municipal elections in two cities —San Francisco and Manchester. 

The “Ballot Guide” feature started rolling out in Manchester last week. (To access this part of the app, you have to first download Brigade. From there, the home screen includes a link to the guide. To unlock this content, you have to confirm that you vote in Manchester and enter in an address within the city.)

The guide itself includes a countdown to the Nov. 3 municipal elections, a link to find out where you can vote and tabs that let you “recommend” candidates for seats up and down the ballot – mayor, welfare commissioner, alderman and school committeeman. Users can also “take sides” on a charter amendment on proposed changes to how the city’s welfare commissioner is selected.

When looking at where to pilot their new “Ballot Guide” feature, the team at Brigade narrowed their initial pool down to a list of 53 cities with populations of at least 100,000 where a mayoral race was underway this year.

They settled on Manchester, in part, because of New Hampshire’s reputation for political savviness and because of the potential to expand upon this initial pilot in the year ahead – during the presidential primary, the state primary and the general election.

Matt Wilson, who oversees partnerships for Brigade, is working with a few local political groups to try to build buzz around the app. Those enlisted to help with the local launch include the Manchester Democrats and Republican Committee, the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trade Council, the New Hampshire Young Republicans and Emily’s List.

The app’s also partnering with the University of New Hampshire-Manchester. Stephen Pimpare, a lecturer on politics and policy at the school, welcomed Wilson as a guest speaker for one of his classes and said he’s optimistic about the app’s potential.

Credit Courtesy of Brigade Team

“I’m especially hopeful it will create a space for our students and other folks in Manchester to have more thoughtful discussions about politics and policies than what they might be having on Facebook or elsewhere,” Pimpare said.

On a broader level, the app also lets people post stances on issues – both silly and serious – and weigh in on the opinions others have posted. One New Hampshire-specific post, for example, states: “New Hampshire should keep its first in the nation primary.” Others touch on partisanship within the state legislature, the prospect of legalized gambling, the construction of electric transmission lines and funding to address opioid issues.

Brigade also has other features meant to prod people to become more civically engaged. On Election Day, for example, you can opt to send an alert to friends letting them know you voted.

Once people take positions within the app, there are also ways for them to connect with other people nearby who might hold similar views – or to have a more structured discussion with someone who holds an opposing view.

So far, the app’s local base of New Hampshire users is still a little sparse. The app team couldn’t provide an updated count on the number of people using it in the area, but Pimpare is hoping to see that base expand in the weeks and months ahead – once more people sign on, he said, the more robust the conversation will become.

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