City and State News Poli-Tech: The digital tools politicos need to gain an edge in 2013 by Aaron Short
Imagine if you had an app that could identify voters when you walk through a crowd—and then mobilize them to join your political campaign.
You could add strangers to your voter files when you hand out flyers on a street corner. You could send messages to likely voters when you walk by their apartment buildings. You could remind your friends and their friends on social networks to register to vote, and then get them to join your cause.
And the burden of combing the state’s mammoth voter databases to create call lists and canvassing packets could shift to campaign volunteers who could download the data within minutes. Those volunteers would be able to identify likely voters and recruit like-minded nonvoters, feeding this data to campaign managers. The managers, in turn, could minutely monitor their volunteers’ progress and reward those who were particularly effective.
Wouldn’t this save time, money and stress while organizing and energizing campaign volunteers?
You might expect this kind of digital technology to be available only to presidential campaigns with a few million dollars to throw around to improve get-out-the-vote efforts. But the creators of 5ive Points, an app launched last year, want to provide a presidential-quality product for candidates as local as an unpaid district leader.
“The whole concept of 5ive Points is to deploy local knowledge and help campaign [workers] construct a database in a way a campaign manager can’t,” 5ive Points founder Laurence Zuriff said. “In order for the product to work best, the managers need to push the product out there to volunteers. The people who know a locality best are the people who live there. It’s not about recreating the old way of canvassing; it’s about creating its own level of enthusiasm.”
Several U.S. Senate and congressional campaigns, including Republican Randy Altschuler’s on Long Island, used 5ive Points this year, but most campaign managers gave the product to their professional staff, reducing its effectiveness.
Zuriff and his team have decided to spend the next few months redesigning the app in time for next year’s elections.
“The goal is to find out who will be able to attract the most voters, then attach those voters to the volunteer and make him responsible for bringing those people to the polls,” he said. “We want to narrowcast how you target people.”
“These guys scared the s–t out of us,” said Ben Kallos, a political consultant and City Council candidate.
Kallos is showing me a 5ive Points marketing video in his office at the New Roosevelt Initiative, a group dedicated to reforming the state Legislature.
“5ive Points has the potential to be very disruptive, because it allows any political candidate who can pay $50 a month to have a voter file in their pocket and activate people in their community on an Obama scale,” he said. “They can have phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and social media tools that even the most sophisticated campaigns, including the Romney campaign, don’t have.”
Kallos scrolls through several political sites before pulling up votersearch.org, a free website he launched five years ago—one of the first to combine state voter records with online search functions.
The site contains a simple interface requiring a user’s first and last name, birthday and zip code, before it spits back an individual’s registration status, election districts and the location of the voter’s county board of elections.
Voter sites have evolved significantly since then.
There are a myriad of websites, apps and tools that allow you to register to vote online, pressure your friends to get politically active, find your polling site and plan campaign events. And candidates can use these services to build their websites, raise money, identify their most fervid volunteers and track their progress up through Election Day.
This year voters updated their registration, learned who was running for office, found candidates who matched their ideology and located their polling sites using nonpartisan free websites including TurboVote, New York Counts, ElectNext and Who’s on the Ballot.
TurboVote works like Netflix. You sign up and then receive reminders about voting deadlines via text message, as well as forms to help you register. Who’s on the Ballot lets you find your polling site and see all the candidates who will appear on your Election Day ballot, including judges, council members and state legislators, just by filling in your address. ElectNext cleverly borrows dating website language and aligns you with politicians running for office based on how you answer a series of politically themed questions. And New York Counts shows you your voting status, gives you directions to your polling site and enables you to remind your friends to register to vote.
New York Counts founder Keith Dumanski built the site with Kallos to help reverse the state’s low voter turnout rates—New York ranks 48th in the nation with only 64 percent of eligible residents registered. Next year he hopes to build a tool on Facebook that allows users to check their friends’ registrations.
“My effort, however humble, is a small part of digitizing the government experience and making it more accountable and transparent,” Dumanski said. “The goal is to get everyone participating and informed—a pretty lofty ambition.”
Kallos has been busy building VotersGive.com, a site that allows candidates to create a website that meets campaign finance reporting requirements and gives voters a more substantive portrait of politicians’ backgrounds.
Six New York City Council candidates, including Kallos, have signed up with VotersGive, which Kallos hopes will compete with more established sites including NationBuilder and ActBlue.
“Candidates approached me and said ‘We need a website,’” he explained. “I built it for free, and anyone can use it for free and have a website by that day. This is a democracy platform. I even offered it to my opponents.”
Voter education and turnout are only parts of a campaign, of course. Office seekers must raise money and plan events to energize supporters.
Dan Berger, a former aide to Rep. Charlie Rangel, vice chair of DL21C and founder of Social Tables, hopes his website can help campaigns get more out of events they plan than fistfuls of dollars.
The app allows you to plan a seating chart, include information about your guests imported from the Web and enable them to connect with each other online before or after the actual event.
“Many good events take months to prepare, and they’re over in four to six hours,” Berger said. “I’ve always thought about extending the life span of an event. Every event is a community, and we view every table at an event as a subcommunity that can engage each other in a meaningful way.”
Berger said that clients have used the site mainly for planning events, but guests have not yet adapted it for socializing, something he hopes to change next year.
“Planning should be collaborative, like Google Docs, where we invite you to move tables around, move stuff around, pull information about the guests, make more informed decisions about where they should sit—and then publish their seating chart,” he said.
He is also looking into enabling guests to print out a PDF file that provides the biographies of everyone seated at their table—a “look book” of sorts.
So far the Australian government has used the site for seating arrangements, and the Latin Grammys will be using it this year, but Berger hopes campaign fundraisers will access it too in the coming months.
“As campaigns kick into high gear, we’ll be hitting them up,” he said.
Getting donors to your event is one thing, but what about tracking your most potentially motivated contributors?
Matt Bishop founded iGiveMore to help nonprofit groups track not only who gives them donations but who can get their friends to donate money to the organization as well.
“Every donation should be an inspiration to give more,” said Bishop, a former Volunteers of America staffer. “When you see your friend give money, it should inspire you. We’re trying to figure out how you can crack the viral code for fundraising.”
One way to do that, Bishop explains, is to give incentives for individuals to donate money while helping organizations understand who their most influential givers are and how they’re giving.
When you join iGiveMore and make a donation to a cause, the program allows you to share your generosity with your friends, and then creates a map of your and your friends’ giving habits, with each node representing an individual’s contribution.
Bishop launched the site to help raise money in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Now he’s developing a platform to help businesses and consumers track their corporate giving. Bishop hasn’t set up the site to help political campaigns yet, but isn’t ruling out the possibility.
“There’s no reason this couldn’t be effective in politics,” he said. “The fundraising technology can be effective in any kind of fundraising.”
Most public officials have embraced social media in order to engage with voters and inform their constituents, but they have been cautious about their approach.
This online form of constituent outreach intensified in the past month when scores of elected officials used the Internet to post photographs of storm damage, mobilize volunteer efforts and lash out at government agencies for the failures of their response to Superstorm Sandy.
Social media experts pointed to both New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams and Bronx state Sen. Gustavo Rivera as being particularly adept at using technology to communicate with constituents and voters.
Williams, who has more than 5,000 friends on Facebook and a Twitter following of over 2,800 people, says he and his staff use both sites to inform residents about issues in his Brooklyn district.
“When we post something on Facebook, people have lengthy conversations with one another, and I especially like when people who don’t agree with me post something because we can see the arguments in real time,” said Williams, who acknowledged authoring about half of his online messages. “And on Twitter, I’ve gotten immediate responses in real time. It’s been very helpful when we govern to get information out and get information back. Both of those things happen fairly quickly.”
Rivera employs a social media liaison and uses sites, including Foursquare, as a means of bringing greater transparency to his office.
“I started using Foursquare because I want to be creative about ways in which we can continue to engage individuals who may not normally get in contact with their elected officials,” said Rivera. “That means utilizing new, innovative ways for my constituents to find out what I am doing to serve them in their communities and to be able to hold me accountable as their representative.”
Along those lines, social media can also be a means to embarrass elected officials who may tweet politically incorrect comments with abandon or play Farmville on Facebook when they’re supposed to be voting on legislation on the floor of the Assembly.
It’s also a tool that activists can use to pressure lawmakers over a piece of legislation.
Actress Susan Sarandon started lobbying Council Speaker Christine Quinn about her refusal to allow a vote on paid sick leave legislation in the City Council because activists tweeted her.
“It shows the power of celebrity on decision makers,” said Elana Levin, a spokeswoman for the web development firm Advomatic. “There was no backroom calling; it was just people on Twitter talking to Sarandon on social media. That’s one of the biggest activist stories: people posting and demanding something, and then getting it.”
New digital sites and social media can help candidates spread messages, raise money and organize volunteers, but there is no guarantee of victory at the polls. And using the latest technology available while integrating a coherent message across multiple platforms can be challenging even for veteran lawmakers.
Some 2013 mayoral candidates have begun to create separate Twitter and Facebook accounts for their campaigns and to hire social media aides to manage their communications.
But some consultants argue that they must make social media a larger part of their campaigns in order to be successful.
“I’m sure the mayoral candidates will all spend time and effort on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and probably a few other platforms,” said Chris Coffey, a consultant with Tusk Strategies and a former Bloomberg aide. “If they want their messaging to spread and resonate, their digital efforts need to complement each other at the same time as treating each platform uniquely. Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Facebook and Pinterest have separate and distinct communities.”
Other political observers believe citywide candidates will instead spend resources on more traditional media and get-out-the-vote methods and give social media short shrift.
“They’re going to say that they want it, but the question is whether they’re going to invest in it,” Personal Democracy Forum founder Andrew Rasiej said, noting that the average age of Democratic Party voters is over 50. “How many of them are online, and does it matter?”
Rasiej and other tech experts say the key for any politician using social media is embracing one’s own voice—which must be guarded zealously by the candidate and not handed off to a staffer.
“If your staff is tweeting for you, it’s hard to convince voters it’s you,” Rasiej said.
All the sites and apps in the world will not accomplish their intended effect if the politician behind them cannot demonstrate he or she is a real, genuine human being, these experts say.
“The key thing is actually not digital at all. It’s your willingness to be an authentic person who is human and who is willing to connect with people,” said Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking. “No digital tool will make you a better candidate on its own. The tools are not an end; they’re a means. The understanding of how to use them effectively has to come from the candidate.”