In the midst of the 2012 election, Hunter Scarborough, a recent college graduate, had a flash of inspiration: Why couldn’t we remove some of the complexity of voting by creating a Tinder-like app that matches users with political candidates that share their ideology?
It was an idea that appealed to Scarborough personally, because even though he considered himself politically engaged, he found it difficult to make sense of all the information flung his way by the media. Rather than letting the idea slip away, he decided to leave his career in advertising and create an app called Voter with the help of cofounder and CTO Sonny Nyamathi. The app launched in September and currently has 30,000 users. With this growing user base, Scarborough began to think about how he can make the app even more sophisticated, and what new range of functionalities might be useful.
“I built Voter for myself,” says Scarborough, who is now 25 and its CEO. “I was working 12- to 14-hour days in advertising and I found that I didn’t have time to do my own political research—and that is the only way to have confidence in who you’re voting for.”
Voter turnout among young Americans is notoriously low. Young adult voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have voted at lower rates than all other age groups in every presidential election since 1962, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the 2012 election, for instance, only 45% of under-30s voted, while those between 30 and 44 voted at a rate of 59.5%; the rate was even higher in older demographics.
Scarborough thought that by putting political data into a format similar to one young people understood well—the dating app—he might be able to make it easier to help them navigate the political process.
The Voter app invites users to answer eight yes or no questions about key issues, such as whether to legalize marijuana, keep same-sex marriage legal, and repeal Obamacare. These questions will help users figure out what political party or candidate best represents them. However, this is just a first step: Users can answer more detailed and nuanced questions, such as whether to subsidize student loan debt or restrict the NSA, to get an even better sense of who to vote for. Throughout the platform, it is possible to click on questions to learn more about the issues at stake.
Scarborough says that, much like a consumer app, the idea is to make it as easy as possible for users to engage with the platform, so that they can get something out of it even if they only have a few minutes to spare, but can learn more the more time they spend on it.
While the online dating format is easily understandable to users, there are fundamental differences (obviously) between a dating app and what Voter is trying to accomplish. After all, Voter is not dealing with users as consumers, but as citizens who may use this information to engage in the political process. Scarborough says that he is committed to providing high-quality data under the hood, but making the user interface very easy to manipulate. “There’s a fine line between giving people a fun, quick, easy experience while not sacrificing the integrity of the information they are getting,” Scarborough says. “While on the surface, the questions are binary—yes or no—they are pulling from hundreds or thousands of data points under the surface,” like a candidate’s campaign finances, their relationship with PACs, and lobbying data.
To populate the app with political data, Scarborough and Nyamathi rely on databases from the Sunlight Foundation, GovTrack.US, and Open Secrets, among others. While these organizations want to make their data open and accessible, it is hard for the average citizen to make sense of it. The point of the Voter app is to translate and simplify this information to make it actionable for users. “This civic data that we needed [such as a candidate’s entire voting record] has only really become easily accessible over the past three or four years,” Scarborough says. “All of these great organizations had done a lot of the hard work for us, so we’re creating this app at an opportune time.”
Voter is nonpartisan; however, it is not exactly like having a user do research on their own, since the app curates information and determines what questions are important when choosing candidates. Scarborough is still working out exactly how to make this process as objective as possible. As of now, he has been responsible for identifying which issues help a user better understand which candidate represents them. However, it’s still early days for Voter. Scarborough is beginning to talk to organizations with expertise in survey methodology, such as Pew, to help craft questions and manage the underlying data more effectively.
“We’ve done a lot of research about which questions are most polarizing, so that in just eight questions, we can deliver the most value,” he says. “But we’re going to bring on other survey methodologists to help us fine-tune this process.”
Scarborough is currently in fundraising mode and is hoping to have an angel investment round secured over the next few months. With this influx of cash, he is hoping to bring on new employees and accomplish new things with the Voter app. First, he is hoping to move beyond presidential candidates so that the app is useful to people who are interested in voting locally for say, their mayor, governor, congressman, or senator.
Scarborough is beginning to think about how to make the app profitable. The app will always be free to users, he says, since that is crucial to the company’s mission of helping to educate citizens. However, as the app’s user base grows, the anonymized and aggregated user information he has on hand will become increasingly valuable to analytics firms and other companies that rely on demographic data. He’s also thinking about how he could use the platform to make it easier for users to donate money to parties and candidates, while extracting a small transaction fee from this process.