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With "RePurpose," AFL-CIO Invites Supporters to Join in Playing Politics

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, September 18 2012

Political organizing may soon start looking like a frequent flyer redemption program.

Workers' Voice, the Super PAC of the AFL-CIO, pulled the wraps off of its high-tech organizing model on Tuesday, which it has named rePurpose. The idea is to use points to better reward campaign volunteers — but rather than those points earning t-shirts or buttons, organizers say, they go towards a stake in how the PAC actually spends its resources.

"We’re committed to changing with [the times] to push the envelope to empower activists to transform the way that politics happens," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a press conference about the program in Washington, D.C. "So with this election cycle, Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers are taking advantage of new campaign finance rules to drastically distort the political process, collecting unlimited corporate donations to run the largest volume of negative and misleading attack ads in our history. Instead of joining them, the AFL-CIO through Workers Voice, is countering their cynicism by combining old fashioned energy and activism with cutting edge technology."

Though the AFL-CIO will still choose the roster of candidates to support in each state, Workers' Voice will reward volunteers for their time and efforts with the ability to direct the flow of its resources in political campaigns.

"The theory of change behind this is that we will actually empower volunteers literally down to where we spend money," said Nicole Aro, the AFL-CIO's deputy digital director, in an interview. "We hope that that will really help folks to feel empowered, and really incentivize them to come in and take ownership."

For now, that means that volunteers rack up points by knocking on doors and talking to voters, registering them and making phone calls. Rewards include the ability to create a "friends and neighbors" phone bank for 25,000 points, being able to place online ads supporting the president for 700 points, and getting on a strategy conference call with AFL-CIO political strategist Matt Lackey for 100 points. Smaller rewards include "digital yard signs" that supporters can share online.

Simply registering with the system lands volunteers with 50 points. Signing up for text messages gets you 14 points. But suffice it to say, a lot of work is required. Phone calls are worth three points and door knocks are worth seven points. So to place an online ad, a volunteer would have to knock on a hundred doors. Volunteers can also buy points by donating money.

The program is now live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida. Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Workers' Voice, said that the group plans to expand beyond that, but didn't say when. Staffers who have worked on the project say that the project is still a pilot program.

While this point system might sound frivolous to outsiders, it's something that's been developing in organizational circles for some time. Volunteers in President Barack Obama's campaign earned points for their activities in 2008, and in 2012 there's a more formal system tracking the activities of teams of volunteers.

Workers' Voice has also put a lot of thought behind the program. They worked "very, very closely" with the Democratically-oriented Analyst Institute to create it, they looked at internal analytics -- and they also consulted Zynga, Aro said. The Analyst Institute has also consulted for the Obama campaign.

"They do [a] fairly robust campaign where they test a lot of different things in terms of what volunteers need, like and hate," she said.

What the Analyst Institute found is that rewarding volunteers who've put in hours of work with a button or T-Shirt actually depresses rates of volunteerism, Aro said.

Fundraising may be different, she noted. When she volunteered on Obama's 2008 campaign, car magnets turned out to be a very popular fundraising tool.

"I think if you get a button for donating $5, that's different from getting a button for three hours of phone calls," she said.

Also, implementing the program meant having to implement an information infrastructure where every single action that a volunteer takes is recorded.

"Every single time a volunteer knocks on a door, we have to record that in the LAN [Labor Action Network], every time someone makes a phone call through Friends and Neighbors, being able to track that, and then setting up the points infrastructure to be able to redeem those points for items," Aro said, with a big sigh. "It doesn't look that complicated on the website, but actually it was pretty complicated."

Friends and Neighbors is a social campaigning tool provided by New York City-based startup Amicus that matches individuals' Facebook friends network with voter registration records. Volunteers can generate lists of people to e-mail, call, or snail-mail on behalf of the campaign.

Workers' Voice will track volunteers by placing bar codes on their walk packets and linking up that bar code with their rePurpose account.

What sets the AFL-CIO's program apart, its creators say, is the ability to direct resources. Often volunteers have strong opinions about what should happen in a campaign they've bestowed with their own time and effort.

The AFL-CIO's rePurpose program was created after Workers' Voice deployed its Friends and Neighbors outreach program in Wisconsin in June. The campaign is notable not only for the technology, and for the way introduces gaming elements into campaigning, but because the Super PAC is focusing entirely on the ground game and betting that people talking to people is the most effective method of winning campaigns. Though the AFL-CIO is placing television ads, unlike most other Super PACs, Workers' Voice doesn't do any television advertising. This development is also notable, as Slate's Sasha Issenberg explained in depth earlier this year, because this is going to be the first election where the AFL-CIO is going to be able to contact members of the public instead of just its own shrinking membership.

As much as Trumka might blast his opposition, the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens' United decision also freed labor to exert more influence as well. The AFL-CIO has 12 million members. In August, the group announced that it is partnering with MoveOn.org to get out the vote. MoveOn.org has seven million members.

The fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived the recall effort that was set into motion by the unions doesn't faze the Super PAC at all.

"It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, because in WI we weren't using it nearly at scale," Vale wrote in an email. "It was a small BETA test to make sure the software worked, get feedback from users."

He said that Workers' Voice hadn't allotted a percentage of its budget to rePurpose because it depends on "how much action people take."

Asked during the press conference whether a few volunteers would game the system, the AFL-CIO's field organizer said that that would simply reflect the desires of those that worked the hardest.

The Sunlight Foundation's "Follow the Unlimited Money" page has a quickly accessible roster of political candidates that Workers' Voice supports and opposes.