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Further Down the Ballot, Little Love for a "Social Voting" Tool

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, November 5 2012

Rachel Norton, a vice president of the San Francisco Board of Education, says Votizen's interface "leaves a lot to desired."

It’s almost Election Day. If you’re in the United States, it’s highly unlikely that you have escaped contact from a political campaign, be it through the mail, phone, in-person visit from a campaign volunteer, text message or television ad.

You might also have been contacted through a friend on Facebook — and if that's the case, it may have been by an organization using technology from the San Francisco startup Votizen. Votizen is hoping to build a Yelp-like service for political candidates. The idea is that candidates can ask supporters to endorse them on social media — then to go a step further, and ask those supporters to convince their friends who are eligible to vote for the candidate to get out and do so.

Votizen was one of the first movers in a growing political field that looks to harness social media data about real voters in ways that campaigns can use to get out the vote. Its platform, which offers campaign supporters the ability to declare their endorsement of a candidate and then look through their social networks for friends who are also voters, made an early splash last year by debuting as part of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's election campaign. But there are other platforms that do similar work, and Votizen's use cases pale in comparison to deployments of competing services on behalf of Obama for America, labor groups working on the Wisconsin recall effort, and even Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

The idea that new tools could make voting social has taken off among high-level campaigns that understand the power of one-to-one connections online. But at the grassroots, where Votizen's co-founders hope to grow most of their clients, this seed of an idea has yet to sprout.

Local candidates and their representatives said that they simply didn’t have the bandwidth to learn how to use a new online tool, or that it didn’t fit with their targeted audience. Interviews with one of the company's co-founders and some of the campaigns putting the system to the test suggest Votizen is being put to use by large institutions that want to quickly deploy "social voting" technology, but the company has a long way to go before it can serve as an effective platform for widespread civic engagement around the most local campaigns.

“The thing about these down-ticket races is that people do not even know [the names of the candidates],” Putorti said. “That’s where friends play a big role. Getting down to the local stuff, that’s where the technology shines big time. There’s a big opportunity there, by just trying to get the recommendation, and the name recognition.”

Votizen has 5,500 campaigns in its system, 200 of which are paying customers. Just under 100,000 people are using Votizen to campaign on behalf of candidates, according to Putorti. But the results there are not exactly eye-catching.

Asked to highlight examples of deployments where Votizen had a significant impact, he offered a Tea Party candidate, Byron Donalds, who lost a five-way House primary in Florida in August. There, a single volunteer drove 1,391 messages from 103 supporters.

"Given this race was decided by a few thousand votes, and this candidate didn't even rate in the Cook Report, I'd say we had a material impact in this primary," Putorti said.

In contrast, Votizen seems to be doing steady business with larger organizations hoping to leverage social connections between their supporters and people in Votizen's database of 200 million registered voters.

On Friday for example, Political Action sent an e-mail out to its seven million members asking them to participate in an online voter-turnout program called “Vote Buddy.” MoveOn is using a Facebook app developed by the nonprofit Fight for the Future that enables people to prominently pledge to vote on Facebook, and to invite their network of Facebook friends to do exactly the same thing via Facebook messages. Users of the app can see which of their invited Facebook friends have pledged to vote, and which of them have voted in the past. Then, they can follow up on Election Day to send their pledges reminders and e-mail queries. The data on friends’ voting histories comes from Votizen’s database.

Fight for the Future’s mastermind, Tiffiniy Cheng, says that several organizations — including Planned Parenthood — also plan to send out invitations to people on their email lists inviting them to pledge to vote. (Full disclosure: Personal Democracy Media is working with Fight for the Future on "The Internet Votes" projects, with funding from the Ford Foundation, to promote the use of Vote With Friends.)

These organizations seem better equipped to take advantage of Votizen's features, but they're not the groups Votizen's co-founders say they saw themselves courting as clients — at least not in this way.

In November 2011, not long after rolling out the platform for the first time, Votizen co-founder David Binetti told techPresident that the platform's goal was "to connect voters to the issues they care about, officials, candidates and ultimately each other." It would be paid for, they said at the time, by providing two services: One to charge issue organizations to print and mail issue letters from citizens who speak out on the Votizen platform, and another to charge campaigns for the opportunity to reach out to people who indicate through Votizen that they're willing to vote for one candidate or the other.

Instead, issue organizations are in essence leasing access to Votizen's database, while the down-ballot candidates Putorti was hoping to reach out to say they don't have the time to put Votizen to use or have tried and did not see it succeed.

"I think people are a little inundated by their FB pages these days with people inviting them to events etc," Rachel Norton, an incumbent member of the San Francisco Board of Education using Votizen in her re-election campaign, wrote to me in an email. "I know I am -- so it doesn't feel as easy and effortless as clicking "Like". It seems like the tool will need a lot more ways to engage my friends so that they want to engage their own friends."

She continued:

I think if I were running a bigger campaign or assigned this task to a volunteer, I might have had more results.

I continue to think the tool has huge potential - they just have to work on the interface a bit and maybe tighten the way it interfaces with other social tools.

Norton said she was trying to write a pitch and send it out to all of her Facebook friends in San Francisco to ask for her vote, which Putorti responds is not the way the tool is supposed to work. The tool is supposed to allow Norton's supporters to log on and ask their friends to support her.

"To get the most out of the product, you need to actually put a lot of supporters on it, and have them send messages out," Putorti wrote in an email. "You get out of this system what you put in, just like a field/grassroots campaign."

Norton is one of about half a dozen local candidates interviewed for this article, most of whom said they saw the potential in Votizen but not the reward.

Anand Singh, field director for San Francisco Board of Supervisors candidate F.X. Crowley, said that District 7 — the district in which I live — has a lot of older voters, which is what inspired the 53-year-old native San Franciscan to keep his campaign “traditional.”

His competitor Joel Engardio, one of seven others, told me that he didn’t have time.

“I have not been using the Votizen site,” Engardio said. “Somebody signed me up for it, but I just haven’t had the opportunity to use it, but I have been using Facebook and YouTube, and a website.”

Votizen, founded three years ago, was established on the premise that voters' peer-to-peer influence through online social networks could fundamentally change the way elections operate in the same way that Napster disrupted established business relationships in the music industry. Its big-name backers include SV Angel, Ashton Kutcher, Sean Parker, and a range of other celebrities.

They're experimenting with new products in the hopes of reaching that goal, like a recently-launched project called Votizen Live, which maps tweets to real voters in their geographic locations. Votizen's tool to let supporters spot voters from among their social networks comes with a flat fee for each campaign, rather than the model Putorti originally planned. Instead of charging per voter, a flat rate lets campaigns enable supporters to find voters among their Facebook friends or Twitter followers, reach out in an effort to solicit their pledge to vote, and then give them tools to follow up on Election Day so that voter might stand a better chance of making it to the polls.

But the company still hasn't overcome hesitance from small campaigns, or perhaps from voters, to try new things.

"People are usually pretty hesitant — even myself — even if I do decide to vote for someone, I usually won't commit by clicking on this link, or telling you right now. I want to take some time to think about this a little more," said Kalen Gallagher, a 29-year-old education entrepreneur and lawyer who has used Votizen to activate his network of friends to vote for him to be a member of the Campbell Union High School Board in San Jose.

That doesn't mean the platform isn't working. Gallagher has dozens and dozens of friends sending out messages to their networks of friends who are voters in his district. He's using Votizen as part of a more conventional strategy that includes phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, mailers, Facebook ads and lawn signs. Votizen cost him a $100 fee for the duration of his campaign. It just isn't delivering the social-media response Gallagher was hoping for.

Putorti expects it will take a few more years before a market for social voting really starts to grow. The real test for Votizen will be in 2014, when Los Angeles votes for for a new mayor, and in 2013 when New York elects a mayor and Virginia votes for a new governor.

"Until they see proof that this is the future, campaigns will continue to be risk averse," he wrote in an e-mail. "In 2008, only a handful of campaigns did online fundraising; now everyone is. Disruptive technologies are ignored, then laughed at, then accepted."

"Startups are by their very nature experiments, until they're hugely successful," he said when asked how he thinks Votizen is doing. "My vision for the future is not about giving campaigns better tools, it's about allowing people to self-organize online and force candidates to pitch them and compete for their votes. When I get a new candidate to run in a district, and win, because they pitched a group of voters on Votizen, I'll consider that a win. When I remake politics so that the primary way votes are won is no longer (attack) television ads, but voters are back at the center, then I'll be where I want to be."

This post has been updated to include a disclosure of Personal Democracy Media's relationship with Fight for the Future in support of its work on "The Internet Votes" project and the Vote With Friends app.