New App Finds 'Virtual' Way to Fix Congress

(Courtesy Ted Henderson)

Every day it seems a new app hits the market seeking to solve the most benign problems facing the smartphone-wielding masses. But how about a much bigger problem - like fixing Congress, an institution with an approval rating hovering around 13 percent?

"If you want to be able to hold Congress accountable, then you have to know what it is doing," said Ted Henderson, the creator of Capitol Bells. "Living with the 21st century technology we have, you should be able to do that without turning on the TV."


Henderson, 29, started Capitol Bells almost a year ago in a fit of nostalgia. He had been a staffer for former Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who retired in January 2013. Henderson found himself out of work and out of the loop on what was going on just miles away from his apartment.

"Being on the Hill, knowing when votes are starting is the thing that kind of drives what's happening," Henderson said. "So it kind of became, if I feel this disconnected… no wonder everyone else feels so disconnected."

Henderson had grown up programming and coded a system that monitors the radio signals that control Congress' buzzer system to alert lawmakers and their staffers when votes are happening. Users of the app are alerted via push notifications, which Henderson says makes for a "virtual Congress," that people can follow along with in real time.

The app quickly gained traction in Washington. Henderson said more than half of the House of Representatives currently uses it along with a handful of Senate members and hundreds of staffers.

"I think it's the one app that's gone viral in Congress before it went anywhere else," Henderson said.

That's when Henderson took his idea and turned it toward constituents.


Now anyone with an iPhone, Android, or the ability to open a web page can put themselves on the floor of the "virtual Congress" and vote alongside lawmakers on pieces of legislation.

It then creates a private voting record, allowing voters to weigh themselves against their elected representatives by actual votes instead of party affiliation.

Now Henderson is setting his sights on the midterms in November, in a move he says could shift the political landscape if users decide to put the app's results into practice.

"My big goal for the midterms is to choose three or four battleground districts, from a nonpartisan stance, do some viral marketing and get some of the candidates from the race onto the platform and create their own virtual voting records if they aren't the incumbent," Henderson said.

It's an idea similar to liberal-leaning comedian Bill Maher's "flip a district" campaign. Maher asked viewers of his HBO show in January to nominate a congressman who has been less than exemplary in representing their constituents and then run a campaign meant to oust them from office.

But Henderson said it wouldn't be his mission to unseat a particular lawmaker.

"So much of what happens that leaves people feeling disconnected from Congress is that most of what happens isn't in front of the public as much as it should be," Henderson said. "Capitol Bells is a tool that would let representatives know that people are actually starting to keep tabs on them."

In order to expand his operation to where he expects it will begin to have some national influence, Henderson estimates he'd need to raise $300,000 to $750,000.

Henderson sees the three-or-four state midterm push as a potential means to that end, but he said his hopes are to fund it without having to force users to wade through advertisements.

"To me what really would define whether this works or not is whether you can make it politically relevant in an actual race," Henderson said.

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