Around the same time that the General Assembly goes into session in January, the state will launch a revamped version of the legislature’s website, which promises to be easier to navigate than the old version that was built in the mid-1990s.
But University of Maryland super-senior Ben Simon said an updated state website isn’t going to solve what he sees as a lack of communication between Marylanders and their elected officials.
“There’s a huge distance between elected officials and voters,” said Simon, 22, of Silver Spring. “What if we could bring everyone into the same room to talk to each other?”
“The same room,” Simon hopes, is a website that he and a group of fellow students and young Marylanders launched Dec. 1, called MyMaryland.net, where registered Maryland voters can log on and connect directly to their representatives at the state and national level.
At the moment, the site is a work in progress but should be fully operational by the time the legislative session starts in January. It is funded by grants and donations — $65,000 total so far — to MyAmerica Inc., a nonprofit formed by Simon to run the site.
Each legislator page contains a biography, campaign finance, a list of sponsored bills and recent key votes, as well as a place for users to post messages to their representatives and each other, or to create polls for other users to weigh in on issues.
The site updates in real time, pulling information from the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org and the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ followthemoney.org.
There also is a petition tool available, which Simon said could produce legally viable petitions in the case of a referendum.
Also key is that only constituents inside a given district can comment on that legislator’s page, weeding out trollers, Simon said.
The look of MyMaryland is decidedly youthful, and that was on purpose, Simon said.
“The site is really for everybody, but we do think that millennials will be some of our early adopters,” Simon said. “That group has some of the lowest participation rates, so we can make a big difference there.”
Simon calls the website “historic,” saying that there has never been a place where voters can find all of their representatives and locate information on all key issues, then communicate how they feel about the issues.
“I think the number of people we have engaging [in government] is a function of how difficult it is,” Simon said.
“We make it more difficult than it needs to be to get information about bills or hearings,” said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring, who plans to use the site once it’s fully functional. “I represent probably one of the most activist districts in the state, and I’m sure I don’t even hear from 1 percent of constituents. I think we can make better policy if we hear from more people.”
MyMaryland will be updated and tweaked over the next year or two, Simon said. Eventually the organization hopes to launch sites in other states, working up to all 50. At that point, there is a chance they could go international, said co-founder and chief technology officer Raul Singh, a student at Georgetown University.
“People working on advancing democracy in other countries say they would love a tool like this,” Singh said. “We have to shoot for the big market.”