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Will This Volunteer-Built App Help Clean Up New York City Politics?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, July 1 2013

The New York City Campaign Finance Board plans this week to release an early version of a web interface for campaigns to collect and process contributions on the go.

The application's preview release is for campaigns to process contributions in-person, such as at an event or while going door-to-door. While there are already apps that do this, none are well-suited to generating the kinds of compliance reports the CFB requires, said CFB spokesman Eric Friedman. The web interface, designed to work well on mobile browsers, is supposed to make it easy for candidates' staffers to do the accounting required of them under city campaign finance law while handling small-dollar contributions. A later release will include more features targeted at voters, Friedman said.

"At first it is designed for use by candidates and their campaigns to process contributions in person, [such as] at small fundraisers," Friedman said. "But later in the summer, at the beginning of August when we roll out the full suite of voter tools, it'll be opened up for any voter who's going onto the tool to look at the candidate and to give that voter the chance to turn around and make a small contribution to that candidate."

"To my knowledge there's no other jurisdiction sort of on the campaign finance side that's gone out and built something like this as a tool for campaigns and contributors," he continued.

City campaign finance laws match contributions under $175 from donors inside New York City with $6 in public funds, with the city's coffers cutting off the flow at $1,050 per contributor. The law also sets limits on the totals that campaigns can spend, depending on the office in question, and calibrates matching funds so that candidates can receive matching funds worth up to 55 percent of the spending limit. Like the campaign finance system in general, Friedman explained, the mobile interface is supposed to encourage candidates to solicit more small-dollar donations -- and benefit from matching funds -- rather than pursue larger donations from a smaller number of richer contributors.

The CFB expects to release a broad suite of web tools, targeted to voters rather than campaigns, sometime in August, ahead of primary elections. In addition to a tool for voters to donate to the campaign of their choice, it is also expected to include information on polling places and voter registration requirements.

As part of a 2010 revision to the New York City Charter, the mayorally appointed Campaign Finance Board absorbed a legacy organization called the Voter Assistance Commission. Now the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, under chairman Art Chang, a venture capitalist and tech entrepreneur, the VAAC set about planning new, Internet-based tools to make it easier to participate in city elections and increase voter turnout.

The committee has turned to local technologists in this effort. Friedman says the app to be released next week was designed and developed, gratis, by New York City firms -- on the understanding that more small-dollar donations in city politics would be a public good. Design firm Method worked on the look and feel, and Pivotal Labs did development.

The new system processes donations using Stripe, a company that offers developers tools to build credit card payment processing into new web applications. Like other credit card processing companies, Stripe takes percentage of each transaction. Secure hosting firm Blue Box will also be in the mix, Friedman said, as hosting will likely come from some combination of donated space and CFB-bought server time.

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