By Frank Parlato
The New York State Senate was recognized last week for having the “best legislative website in the country” by the National Conference of State Legislatures and, consequently, received the 2016 “Online Democracy Award,” according to a press release issued by the New York State Senate.
The award was given during a summit in Chicago which convened from Aug 8 – 11.
Again, according to the New York State Senate press release, the Online Democracy Award” is given each year to a legislature, legislative chamber, or caucus whose website helps make democracy user-friendly.”
Unfortunately, as of press time, we have only the State Senate’s word that their website: NYSenate.gov. (www.nysenate.gov) won any award.
A week has passed since judges reportedly gave the award, yet, as of press time, Aug. 18, the group that selects the best legislative website has not updated their own website and posted the 2016 winner of their online award.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ website (http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislative-staff/information-technology/online-democracy-award-winners.aspx) makes no mention of New York State but rather of the Tennessee General Assembly, the organization’s 2015 award winner, of which they had this to say: “The Tennessee site was praised for its inviting, warm and welcoming qualities, essential for engaging citizens. The site also was recognized for a consistent design, fresh content but easy to access past information, and other qualities.”
According to The National Conference of State Legislatures’ website, their judges evaluate websites for “design, content, and technological integration.”
The judges must have had a good look at the New York State Senate’s website if they decided to award it the Online Democracy Award.
It deserves a good look since the New York State Senate website, NYSenate.gov, was updated last year with new interactive software.
Skeptics of the motives of the senators might suspect the changes that won them the Online Democracy Award were not meant to increase democracy.
The new features seem to have been designed to empower incumbency and make elections more difficult for challengers.
New York State has gerrymandered districts where challengers almost never win, unless, of course, the incumbent is convicted for corruption which happens sometimes.
The new website’s interactive features was certainly designed to attract more visitors (read voters) and it directs the visitor to the specific webpage of their incumbent senator, allowing voters to become more familiar with him or her.
The website allows senators to be ‘in touch’ with voters without having to actually be in touch with them at all.
The programs generate correspondence, compile information and interact with voters for them.
This new senate website could be called “digital franking” and because it doesn’t take any time for the senator – the software does the work – it is better than ‘franking.
And, better still, it prompts voters to spend more time – digitally – with their senator- as they click on links and enter comments and look at pretty pictures of the senator and nice warm graphics.
Voters will feel they are getting to know their senator.
Arguably the website offers features, which, if used by the high information voter, could be handy. With a click of the mouse, voters can track the status of senate bills in real-time, and receive email updates from their senator informing them on the issues they cared enough about to click the links.
Computer generated emails will then arrive in voters’ email inboxes with news and updates with the senator’s name as the sender, and it will be as if senator took the time to write the email himself.
And online, voters can register support or oppose legislation, sign online petitions, provide online input and online feedback on legislative proceedings, which, for the low information voter, is something he will think his senator is doing just for him – to hear his opinion – as if his senator was waiting on the computer to hear his feedback.
The feedback section is very nice – for a senator. In an ideal world, he will have voters coming to his senate page, see his name and picture and it will be as if he is asking them personally for feedback and won’t they be pleased and a little honored that their senator wants their opinion so much?
And all the while the software does it all.
Without a senator doing anything , thousands of constituents could be on the website,fiddling with their computers, interactively clicking away and thinking of their senator.
And that is democracy as it is presently understood.
Still it is clear that the National Conference of State Legislatures in giving their award looked at the Senate website in a different light.
According to the New York State Senate press release which announced they had won the Online Democracy Award for their website, the judges considered the site’s bill comment feature as a plus, along with features that allow for easy sharing of bills on social media. The judges also applauded its user-friendly design, attractive and easy-to-understand graphics, and prominent calendar highlighting statewide activities.”
(Editor’s note: Within hours of this story being published, the National Conference of State Legislature, happily. did update their website to announce that the New York State Senate had indeed won the 2016 Online Democracy Award.)
The Online Democracy Award recognizes the following state legislative websites that stand out for making democracy user-friendly.
New York State Senate
The New York Senate site was selected for its user-friendly design, attractive and easy-to-understand graphics, and a prominent calendar highlighting statewide activities. The site’s encouragement of public interaction through a bill comment feature was also a winning element. The site also was commended for straightforward search capabilities and intuitive navigation that facilitates the public’s access to the legislature. View