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Democracy.com Shines Searchlight on Candidates and Elected Officials

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, June 5 2014

Democracy.com announced Thursday that it has unveiled what it calls the most comprehensive searchable database of American elected officials, candidates, appointees and political organizations at all levels of government.

As techPresident previously reported, the non-partisan Democracy.com platform launched last fall with the aim of establishing a social network for politics with a focus on helping local candidates have access to a professional web presence and fundraising tools.

With the rollout of the expanded search function, Democracy.com hopes to take another step towards making the political process more accessible in spite of a fractured American political landscape, explained Talmage Cooley, founder and CEO of Democracy.com.

"We live in an average of 10 political districts each and almost none of them have the same boundaries," he said. "Each of these districts has their own authority and management and ways of storing their information ... there is no single database that lets you find out who represents whom."

Existing tools, such as the Google Civic Information API that includes data from the Voter Information Project "do not go very deep with their data," he said.

To fill that gap, Democracy.com acquired a start-up called Voter's Friend that developed a proprietary scraping method with a special focus on locating elected official and candidate information on the hyperlocal level via websites, PDFs and other documents. "It's pretty easy to find this data at the federal and state level, but drilling down to the smaller community and county information, that's where 98 percent of the candidates are...in school board or judge races that you have never heard of."

The search database of 80,000 candidates and elected officials, which will eventually grow to all 550,000 elected officials in the United States, is integrated with the Democracy.com tools that let users donate, pledge to vote or sign-up to volunteer for a candidate, incorporating campaign finance compliance requirements for all 50 states, Cooley pointed out.

Democracy.com is working on making an API of its data available to developers, Cooley said, and in about 60 days plans to make it possible for voters to create accounts with a public or private profile and "become micro-organizers within the site around the candidates and issues they care about."

"It really ties into taking action, directly from the search function and a candidate's profile you can donate, you can volunteer, we're kind of providing an entry point to voters to find what they care about," Cooley said.

Since the platform went live nine months ago, it has grown to around 2,600 candidates and organizations with verified profiles and 15,000 users overall including candidates, organizations and voters who have taken an action in support of a candidate.

To grow the userbase, Democracy.com has had significant success connecting with state-level and county-level party and advocacy group organizations, Cooley emphasized, now with over 800 partners including local Republican groups in Alabama, Colorado and Louisiana and local Democratic groups in California, Florida and Mississippi, among many others. Those sorts of "big networks" came to the site "far far faster than we expected," he said, and Democracy.com is now having conversations with national party leaders about providing the platform to their entire membership. "Up until now ... the state or national party had very few resources for their downballot candidates," he said, often giving the impression that the parties didn't care about those candidates. "They cared but they didn't have the resources," he said, noting that with Democracy.com, candidates have access to a free web presence that improves their searchability and search engine optimization and that the platform has helped to raise about $100,000 a week for candidates or organizations.

Cooley said he saw Democracy.com in the context of the trend of other specialized social networks such as Pinterest or Yelp. "Facebook can't be everything to everybody."

Democracy.com is not the only platform seeking to address the lack of unified data surrounding voting and elections. The Participatory Politics Foundation gathered its own collection of data on elected officials for its AskThem platform. And Wednesday night at a panel discussion on Open Source Democracy at New York Law School, Seth Flaxman, founder and executive director of Democracy Works, which launched TurboVote, said the non-profit would be releasing an API of all the data it has gathered for its service on when elections are happening at all levels of government.