Connecting Voters with their Representatives, New Penhole Seeks to Strengthen Democracy

This Dallas-based startup cuts through political babble.
This Dallas-based startup cuts through political babble. Courtesy Penhole
One day during his first semester at Southern Methodist University, Trent Koen started to procrastinate instead of prepping for finals. The law student asked his study group the following two questions: Could they name their elected officials at the local, state or federals levels? If so, did they know how their representatives voted day to day?

Just one person could answer the first question; no one knew the second.

Koen thought if law students had trouble answering those questions, it didn't bode well for the rest of the voting public. So in October, he and three other Dallas natives launched a free application, Penhole, which connects users to elected officials.

“I’ve asked that question, probably now, to a couple thousand people, and the only person who was actually able to answer my question was my Constitutional Law II professor,” CEO Koen said with a laugh. “And I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily think that counts.”

Journalism has long served as the primary way to stay apprised of political matters, but Americans' trust in the news media is declining. According to an August Gallup and Knight Foundation poll, 83% believe there’s political bias in news coverage. Another 83% say the media bears blame for the country’s political division.

To keep voters engaged in politics, sans partisan strife, Koen set out to create an application that serves as an unbiased wellspring of information.

Penhole offers the latest on bills and how lawmakers vote on them — free of human interaction. Koen said all the data comes directly from the source with zero opinion or curation.

“It kind of blew our minds that there was nothing like this out there that just easily and instantly gave you this information,” he said.

When signing up, Penhole users can select categories they’d like updates on, such as education, crime, environmental protection and social welfare.

“We really think that your average person can make a difference, and we want to just be a small tool to help them go and be able to do that — or realize that they can." – Trent Koen, Penhole CEO

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Users can also read through full bills and weigh in on how their representative voted with either a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” (Koen said there isn’t a comments section because those can quickly degenerate into a disinformation cesspool.)

The site was created with the average American in mind, but even political junkies don’t always have the time to sift through mountains of information on government sites. Koen said that feeling inspired the app’s name: It’s sort of like in elementary school, when students would peer through a pinhole to safely view an eclipse.

“I know that when I’m going through these government websites and trying to read through all this legislation, oftentimes my eyes are burning,” Koen said. “We want to be a tool to help you … look at everything and understand it, without having that same feeling.”

As of now, Penhole only offers federal-level data, but Koen said they're working to include state and local governments. Plus, the app could eventually provide representatives an outlet to explain why they voted a certain way, which would help constituents to better understand their reasoning.

Penhole users can also easily contact lawmakers through the app by clicking on a representative’s office number or email. Presidential elections may get the bulk of attention and media coverage, Koen said, but constituents can more readily enact change by calling their legislators.

Most Americans really are interested in how they’re being represented, Koen said; they just need the right app to help cut through the noise.

“We really think that your average person can make a difference, and we want to just be a small tool to help them go and be able to do that — or realize that they can,” he said. “I think that’s the best part about being an American.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter