Open-Vote.com grows with debate
By Lior Bassell
Published on Friday, September 28, 2007
Students who watched Wednesday night's Democratic presidential candidates debate gained a new venue in which to express their reactions: Open-Vote.com, a new Dartmouth-specific polling website launched Monday by Jason Freedman Tu'08 and Colin Van Ostern Tu'09.
The duo developed the idea for the website last year after working with undergraduates from Dartmouth and other schools.
Freedman said he started the site in the hopes of promoting dialogue among students.
"I always felt that college students have incredibly strong opinions on how this world should be, but that they had no way to communicate their opinions to the rest of campus," Freedman said. "We wanted to create a place where being a part of that conversation -- like what needed to be changed -- was possible."
Openvote's Wednesday night debate poll -- which named Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., winner of the debate -- saw high student participation. Within an hour of the debate's completion, 10 percent of the Dartmouth campus had already voted on the outcome. Volunteers from the website were present at both the student watch party and outside of the debate encouraging students to cast their vote.
The poll, which had garnered 638 total votes at press time, attracted national media attention -- particularly for its ability to lend insight into the college demographic.
"There has not been a comprehensive, way up until now, to see what a campus thinks," Van Ostern said. "Phone calls, meetings and letters to the editor can be a great or an awful gauge. Openvote gives you a pretty good feel."
Though Wednesday's debate poll was Openvote's first push for publicity, Van Osten said that politics are not intended to be the focus of the website.
"The main point of this website is to give the students more power over their own campus," he said. "When students need to show that their voices are united, that they want or need something, the media, prospective students, parents, alumni and the world at large can see that. Openvote can be a strong force of change."
Van Ostern said the website could be used both in times of controversy, as well as for more mundane topics. Because the polls are user-generated, the website's creators foresee polls on restauarants in Hanover, or even fraternity parties.
Polls unrelated to the political process, however, have so far seen smaller participation rates.
Membership on the website has grown significantly in the days since the initial launch. Since Monday, 1200 users have joined, including around 50 non-students.
"We're open to new ways to work with everybody in the community," Van Ostern said. "Professors can even use this to have some great discussions with their classes, to get their opinions on things or have students post opinions."
Voting in a poll on Openvote is anonymous. However, if a user posts an opinion or a poll, he does so under his own name. Non-registered users and members of another college's Openvote site will be unable to see authorship.
"Without names, you get a pretty quick race to the bottom in terms of content -- back of the bathroom stuff," Van Ostern said. "We want people to feel that they can talk about whatever and vote openly, but we also want the level of privacy to facilitate open, honest discussion."
Freedman and Van Ostern have been pleased with the website's progress so far.
"We have hundreds of emails from people who are so excited about this opportunity to tell people what they think. Some professors are talking about it in their classes. One is even putting it on Blackboard," Freedman said. "Ultimately, this project will be a success when a school changes a policy or determines a policy based on student input, and when communities really start paying attention."
Though currently a Dartmouth e-mail address is necessary to register for Openvote, Freedman and Van Ostern plan to expand the website to other schools within the next few months following the Dartmouth trial period.
"It's really important to us to get it right," Van Ostern said. "We wanted to make something helpful and user friendly. Although at some point it would be great to make money off of this, we wanted to make a compelling, interesting site first."
The website is not currently a for-profit venture.
"Right now we're 100 percent focused on serving the interests of the student body," Freedman said.