People often ask me to explain Votizen, and I always enjoy watching someone’s face light up when I share our vision for the future. However, until now, I’ve never published where we’ve been, what we’re building and where we’re headed. With over a million voters now reachable through our platform, it’s time to fix that.
March 2011: Get your voting history, and use it to certify messages to Congress
We flipped the switch on Votizen in March of 2011. At that time, it was a product where registered voters could sign up, retrieve their voting record and history, and write messages to Congress. Think of it as a certified letter, although instead of certifying the contents with the post office, you could certify that you were a real constituent of the official you were writing— and not just any constituent, but one with the power to vote him or her in or out of office every election year.
At that point in time, Votizen was focused on the individual voter. We wanted each voter to be able back up their voice with the power of their vote. We knew that people were frustrated by not being heard by those who represented them, and felt that by backing their words with a way to hold officials accountable, the representatives would be more likely to take their opinions seriously.
Early learnings: @2gov
This early approach was bolstered by the success of a precursor to Votizen called 2gov, which allowed people to send ‘verified’ tweets to Congress backed by their voting records. (You can read a case study of 2gov in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.) The use of 2gov to promote the Startup Visa movement was a harbinger of the use of social tools in public policy debates a year before the SOPA and PIPA blackouts of January 2012. Most of our early product learnings came from 2gov, but the overall Startup Visa lobbying effort taught us quite a bit, which I’ll get to later.
Summer 2011: Open Letters to Congress
Our first product was a UI for the basic process of writing certified messages to Congress. On the back end, our voters’ messages were printed in-house and shipped to our delivery person in the Capitol. Our next iteration of the product in July allowed people to create longer form letters than the original short messages inspired by the 2gov approach. This came from voter feedback, as well as our desire to allow people to share their stories, which we learned from elected officials is immensely powerful for them. The other piece of this was making these letters open letters to Congress, so voters could sign off on each others’ ideas and have them delivered to their officials as well. So if I wrote a letter to Washington, D.C., Votizen would deliver it to Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Zoe Lofgren. If my Mom in New York agreed, we would similarly then deliver to Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Paul Tonko. Similar to petitions, we took cues from existing open letter publishing tools we saw online; the difference with ours being the authenticity of the signer and the political power represented by his or her vote. This helped increase our usage, but we knew that something was still missing. Social media channels are lossy: tweets and Facebook posts can be missed, and emails can be ignored, so without a truly remarkable issue, organizing and getting attention on yours, is difficult. But we soon found an answer to this problem in the world of campaigning.
September 2011: Campaign Season Begins
In September 2011, the San Francisco Mayor’s Race was heating up and we wanted to provide a way for our users to get involved in the race. We then came up with the idea of creating an online tool to mirror what was happening in the real world. So, just as traditional political campaigns organize and have volunteers conduct precinct walks (walking through neighborhoods knocking on doors) we decided we could replicate that experience over social networks. Instead of knocking on doors, why not talk to your friends instead and ask for their vote? We called it a virtual precinct walk and launched it at TechCrunch Disrupt, activating it for every Mayoral campaign in San Francisco.
Supporters of any campaign could sign up, see who among their friends on Facebook was actually a registered voter in San Francisco, and make individual requests for voters to pledge their votes in the November election. Votizen then handled voting reminders, and polling locations for those who pledged. And since this entire system was focused on the actual registered voters in San Francisco, we knew that these efforts would have a direct impact on the outcome of the election. This is the first known example of tying a consumer web application to real voting data from a state government.
The virtual precinct walk was real eye-opener for us. First, it worked! We were able to verify after the election that our voters turned out and actually did what they said they were going to do. Second, this represented a huge shift in how campaigns could be conducted. We charged the campaigns pennies per vote — not per pledge, but the actual vote as verified on the returns after the election. In a country where millions of dollars are needed for very expensive forms of advertising, fueled by special interest money, we had just proven that friends could get other friends to vote. And finally, we learned that when people could come together on something they believe in, it’s a powerful motivator that goes well beyond the individual experience of writing a letter, even one that was certified and verified.
Post-election 2011: Open letters retired, retool for 2012
Shortly after this experiment ended, we realized that our public policy tools were underpowered and were unlikely to deliver the transformative change in our politics that is our vision. We didn’t want Votizen to become another petition site where people get politically-correct and content-free answers. We want to make a difference. We want to show that 14,286 voters in their district will vote them out in November if they don’t represent their interests. That’s real power, and it’s the essence of politics. We want to solve the problem of accountability, not just astroturf. Officials getting voter sentiment doesn’t matter if they’re still beholden to donors and bundlers instead of the voters. If you fix that, and break down the forces that make us all apathetic about our politics, you’ll begin to see a new kind of politician, and a new kind of discourse in Washington, your state capitol, and your city hall.
And here’s where our key learnings have paid off. People want to join a movement. They want to make a difference. By making them not just a target of campaigns, but as active participants with a stake in the outcome and a goal greater than themselves, they can have a much more powerful experience than acting alone.
When only 50% of people are registered to vote, and only 25% actually vote with regularity (½ of that for an odd-year special election like this one) knowing who to talk to is incredibly important. Imagine, if you as the volunteer — or even as the politician — knew the individual conversations you could have that would tilt the election? Isn’t that the world we want to live in? A world where those who seek office need to have relationships with those they want to represent? This is at the heart of the Votizen vision: replacing the top-down mass media campaign that’s been the standard since the Daisy ad in 1964, with retail politics through friends today, and ultimately self-organization among voting constituencies to demand candidates that share their values, and who refuse to vote for those who don’t.
March 2012: Your voter network
It’s been a year, and we’ve expanded the ability to find your voting friends to the entire United States. We’ve also made it easier to find by adding Twitter and LinkedIn alongside our original Facebook connectivity. Today, you can run a campaign for candidates actively campaigning for President as well as the Senate, and we’re in the process of working our way through Congressional and state races, to our ultimate goal of having every local race in the United States available for you. Our base of Votizens campaigning on-site are now connected to over 1,200,000 real voters in the U.S., and several million more who are eligible to register. If you multiply this base by all the different races each of them can vote in, where maybe a message or a phone call from a friend or family member will turn that person from someone who was going to skip the election, into votes for a dozen candidates or ballot initiatives, this is a big deal, and a game changer for the American voter.
Later in 2012
Throughout 2012, Votizen will be the place where you can find the voters (or register new ones) who can help your candidates or ballot initiatives get the votes needed for victory. Together we will have an impact this year across the country. Candidates running for office that can’t afford to spend like a traditional campaign on media buys, will look to us to empower their supporters to spread their message, and have the conversations that will turn into real votes. New features are coming that will let you have real conversations with people, find common ground, trade support in races across the country, express yourself politically, and continue to build your own network of voters so you can exercise your political influence. Tools and technologies that have been reserved for the two major parties and Presidential campaigns will continue to be rolled out for you to use in your campaign. The near term vision is to give you greater power than just your one vote: the power to move all the votes you know. A voter in California has very little impact on the Presidential race, but that voter in California can influence, potentially, hundreds of votes in swing states. Now all politics is social, not local.
2013 and Beyond
This year we’re focused on empowering you to change election outcomes using the power of your social networks. In 2013 Votizen will move to self-organization of new voting blocs, from electorates as small as your school district to the country. This will enable new candidates to compete for your votes and run for office by the strength of their ideas and their ability to establish real relationships with voters, not on the strength of their donors funding attack ads. We will empower you to lobby for public policy by locating everyone you know represented by a bill co-sponsor in the House or Senate, or your state legislatures, and rallying them together. We are looking at allowing you to introduce your own legislation; today lobbyists are writing a lot of our bills, but why shouldn’t they come from the people?
We believe the wisdom of the crowd prevails over the narrow extremism that drives today’s flavor of politics. We believe that voters, connected to each other through a new kind of network, represents the future of democracy. To this end, Votizen aims to foster, create, and empower this new kind of network. It aims to give real people access to tools that will give them the chance to make an impact on the challenges facing their communities, their country, and their world.
I’m often asked, “why Votizen?” Or, “if you could be doing any other startup right now, what would it be?” I had my pick of startups after Mint but I chose to do this. My answer is always the same, I can’t imagine doing anything but this.
“Unambitious ideas are a problem.” -Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel and a few others in Silicon Valley lament the lack of entrepreneurs solving truly large problems. To me, politics is both my greatest passion, and the biggest problem I can think of, and that by fixing it, we will improve the lives of citizens by giving them their government back. This is a very hard problem. Anyone who starts a company is already irrational, and this is even more irrational. So, I need your help! Join me on Votizen, spread the word, and together we can restore American democracy.