Mountain View City Council hopeful Justin Cohen has never been to a council meeting or served in elected office before, other than being elected class president in the third grade. But he believes his rookie status only makes him a stronger candidate for the system he plans to implement if elected this November.
If successful in his bid for one of the three council seats that are up for grabs, the 24-year-old Tesla engineer says he will develop an app where he will post a poll for every decision he’s faced with on the dais. Cohen says he will leave it up to Mountain View residents to vote, and he promises to go with whatever option wins the popular majority.
“Essentially what my goal is here is the idea of direct democracy: the people being governed have a more direct say in their government, as opposed to just picking one person to make decisions on your behalf,” Cohen said in an interview. “I want to make it such that the people being governed vote on each individual issue.”
Cohen is relatively new to the West Coast, having grown up in a New York City suburb before moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend North Carolina State University where he got his Bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, followed by Columbia University for a Master’s in applied physics. After graduating, he drove across the country to move to Mountain View for the summer in 2021, and then moved back to the city again earlier this year.
Cohen believes his lack of political experience and recent Mountain View residency is to his advantage in his unorthodox approach: his unfamiliarity with how the City Council has traditionally operated, he said, will help him be a more neutral vessel for the popular opinion of Mountain View residents.
“I don’t think it can be that complicated,” Cohen said of being a council member. “I’m not voicing what I believe, I’m just doing what this poll system tells me to do.”
Cohen acknowledged that he does have his own opinions, just like any other Mountain View resident. In fact, he plans to participate in his app-based poll system.
“I want to set a good example, for sure,” he said. “I want to be a participant in the system. My vote will be (of) equal weight as everybody else’s.”
Cohen was willing to share his thoughts on a few hot button local issues, but he emphasized that his opinion is “just as valuable in this direct democracy system as anybody else's.”
“So regardless of what I believe, like, hold me to it that I will do whatever the majority wants,” he said.
When asked his thoughts on the city’s oversized vehicle parking ban, Cohen said, “there seems to be a lot of RVs everywhere and it’s kinda gross. ... So it definitely seems to me like it’s something I would want to fix. Obviously I recognize that the people living in those RVs are less fortunate. So they are people too, so we have to do something sensible.”
He suggested that the city assist RV dwellers to “figure out a new place to live.”
With the cost of housing and future growth in Mountain View both constant points of debate in the city, Cohen said he tries to take a “common sense” approach to these issues.
“I rent and it’s so expensive to live here, it kinda sucks,” he said. “But I understand you can’t just build big apartment buildings and have a bunch of people move in. … We need to make more housing, and the answer is there’s a happy medium. Maybe it’s not like a gigantic apartment building, maybe it’s a low-cost, lower-unit sort of solution here, and certain parts of town can support that.”
When asked how he plans to make his direct democracy app accessible to all the different demographics in Mountain View, Cohen said he believes his approach will reach more people than traditional voting systems do.
“I would make the case that more people have access to the internet than have the ability to go to the polls and place their vote,” he said.
He added that if elected he will “110% make it so we have public computers out and about where people can go online and voice their voice, if need be.” For those who don’t speak English, Cohen said he plans to have translations available online.
“One of the strengths of this type of system is not only can it be used for voting and polling, it can be used for propositions,” he said. “There will be a section of the website where you can voice, ‘Maybe this should be something we vote on next time,’ sort of thing. I want to hear all those.”