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Votizen and DemDash: Can They Make Voting Social?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, November 4 2011

Can we make voting for candidates and advocating for issues more social? And more specifically, can we make the whole process of supporting and endorsing candidates in advance of an election, or promoting a position on a bill, more transparent and sharable, in ways that get voters and activists to keep coming back to a website because it makes them more influential?

That's the holy grail of a number of interesting startups, two of which--Votizen and DemDash--are getting a serious try-out next Tuesday around San Francisco's mayoral election. Votizen is better known, as it's already lined up some serious venture capital from investors like Ron Conway, Peter Thiel, and Sean Parker, and is getting usage by several mayoral candidates, including Ed Lee and Joanna Rees. But DemDash, which has been almost single-handedly built by Dan Ancona (with help from his wife Jen Ancona, a progressive strategist, and designer whiz James Home, who is now at Google, redesigning search), is also seeing some traction as the election approaches. Both sites are trying variations on the "share your voting plans" model, an idea whose time may finally be coming.

The first thing you see when you go to sign up on Votizen is four options: to claim your voting record (based on the official history in the voter file), to endorse candidates in the races where you have a choice, to inform your vote by learning what other voters have to say about the issues, or to write a letter to an official and invite others to sign on.

Whichever path you choose, once you've created an account, you're presented with a Facebook-like dashboard showing you a newsfeed incorporating a variety of useful signals, built around what people you're listening to are doing on the site. If you log in with Facebook or Twitter, Votizen will let you start following some of your friends, and that's where the site starts to get interesting: People I'm following are supporting various politicians, or bills, and where a topic is hot, the updates are pretty fresh.

Right now, about 700 people have indicated their vote for San Francisco mayor, a number that will probably rise in the next few days till Tuesday's vote. Active users can opt to become a "precinct captain," and if you give Votizen permission, it can produce a list of your Facebook friends registered to vote in San Francisco for you to try and virtually door-knock. It will even tell you who has voted in the past to help you focus your efforts. A leader board shows who's recruited the most.

But that's not the only way that Votizen makes itself useful. Another key functionality of the site is the ability to create and endorse "open letters" to legislators about current bills. Votizen makes those easy to share, and promises to deliver them directly to each official addressed. For example, a letter opposing the Protect IP Act, initially written by Republican tech consultant Patrick Ruffini, has 446 signers. Each time someone signs, they're given the option of spreading the word socially, via Twitter. A new feature even makes it easy to embed letters you've endorsed on your own site, which will help Votizen spread.

"Our vision is to connect voters to the issues they care about, officials, candidates and ultimately each other, says David Binetti, one of Votizen's co-founders, who I met a few weeks ago in Mountain View. "We're focusing on things that allow people to take action individually that doesn't require them to be part of millions," he adds. Why would someone use Votizen, as an individual, I ask him. "The numbers on the social side make it more valuable, for one. But the authenticity is the second piece--these are real people, real voters, with a real identify and voting history--that's what elevates it from astro-turf."

Ultimately, Binetti says, Votizen aims to make money two ways. First is by charging issue organizations on a per message basis for printing and delivering letters from voters on their issue. Something tells me this isn't likely to generate much money, given how slow many issue organizations are to adopt new tools.

But his second method is intriguing. Lists of people who have publicly indicated their intention to vote for a candidate are quite valuable to campaigns. Binetti calls it a kind of "outsourced get-out-the-vote" operation. "If someone says they're voting for X, we can deliver timely reminder messages and charge campaigns for doing so," he argues. "The real value is local, where 10 or 20 people can shift an election," he adds.

DemDash (short for Democracy Dashboard) works in a similar fashion, and once you've created an account, you'll also see a Facebook-like newsfeed showing you updates from friends you follow. But it differs from Votizen in two crucial ways. First, the site invites participation from groups, not just individuals, and thus if you want to follow what a group says about a candidate or issue, DemDash shows you. And second, and perhaps most valuable, DemDash will make you a kind of social palm-card for an upcoming election.

Thus, for this Tuesday's mayoral race in San Francisco, I can not only see how many people have endorsed each candidate, I can also see where various groups and individuals I follow stand on them overall. Like Votizen, I can read why someone has endorsed a candidate. But DemDash adds in the fact that the Harvey Milk Club has endorsed John Avalos, along with the SF Bike Coalition, the SF Bay Guardian, several other Democratic clubs, and two people I'm following on the site, and stacks all that info up neatly on a single page. Like Votizen, you can see which users or groups have the most listeners, another nifty feature if you want to figure out who is influential on the site.

For people who often go to vote with relatively little knowledge of all the candidates and issues that may be on the ballot, DemDash's palm-card (my term, not theirs) could solve an ornery problem that many of us have. Who should I vote for local judge or school board? Often, we ask our friends for advice. DemDash makes that process more social.

It also makes it easy to find likeminded voters, revealing hidden parts of the social graph in ways that could be politically generative. "We're introducing people to each other by which groups they are fans of," Ancona tells me as we chat in the Hub, a tech incubator in downtown San Francisco. And, DemDash also gets around an aspect of election law that prevents nonprofits from endorsing candidates. If you can see how a group's members think about candidates--say, look at how ten people who are fans of the Electronic Frontier Foundation line up on their candidate preferences--you can in effect see how a certain organization might vote if it were actually allowed to endorse candidates directly.

Both sites take advantage of how easy it is to verify people's voter registration information today. As a result, the information displayed has a certain veracity that your random internet polling site lacks--and the data these sites are collecting voluntarily from their users ought to be of intense interest to campaigns.

"The holy grail of campaign data," says Ancona, "is the connection between what people support, their voter information and their social profiles." He sees a business model in the fact that campaign currently waste large sums on far less precise forms of voter contact. Mailers costs $8 per piece in California, he notes. "We're going to be charging politicians to talk to voters in the way that they've already said they want to be talked to," he argues.

If an early alpha run of DemDash last November is any indication--usage of the site spread by word-of-mouth in the last days before the election and it actually crashed at 3pm on Election Day--the site may see a last minute spike in usage as Tuesday's vote approaches in San Francisco. Ancona has also raised $2500 on Loudsauce to do some targeted outreach to SF voters. Votizen will also being banging the drum, and we should see some usage of the site around several other local races.

The big prize, of course, is the 2012 cycle. These sites have the potential--along with several other start-ups working the space between voters and elected officials--to open up the game of politics in a new way. Check them out; kick the tires; and let us know what you think.

(This post has been updated to fix a typo in the headline.)

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