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These social canvassing apps might help get Democratic voters off the couch this November

They lost in 2016 because too many of them–for a variety of reasons– stayed home on Election Day. A new wave of get-out-the-vote apps arms volunteers with voter record data to help find and activate new voters.

These social canvassing apps might help get Democratic voters off the couch this November
[Photo: flySnow/iStock]

The main reason Donald Trump is POTUS #45 is because Democrats stayed home in 2016. In key swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan, the numbers show voter turnout among Democrats was way down compared to previous elections. They stayed home because they were uninspired by their party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton. Or they stayed home because they thought Clinton was a shoo-in, and didn’t need their vote. And they lost.

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As we head into the 2018 midterms, which will be largely a referendum on Trump, Democrats have one thing on their minds–GOTV: Get out the vote. A number of digital tools have sprung up to help fulfill that desire, like New Voter Army, OutVote, VoteWithMe, VoterCircle, and others. What they all have in common is that they provide a way for users to influence people they know to register, then vote for Democrats in the midterms.

Vote with me . . .

Mikey Dickerson was one of the Silicon Valley guys called in by the Obama administration to fix the Healthcare.gov site. He ended up staying, and was one of the original techies in the United States Digital Service. When Dickerson left the government in early 2017, he turned his attention to elections. His nonprofit, called New Data Project, has spent the last couple of years working on a social voting app called VoteWithMe. The app accesses the contact list in the user’s phone, then checks the names against a voting record to find people in swing states who might be persuaded to register and vote for Democratic candidates. The app shows the potential voter’s registration status, information about their local elections, and whether they’ve voted in past elections.

The app also suggests text message content that might work to persuade a target contact, although the user can personalize the message before hitting Send. New Data Project believes messages from friends are about 20 times more effective than GOTV messages from strangers.

The pre-filled text messages don’t incorporate content specific to the race in the target voter’s district. It’s more basic. If the voter record shows the voter isn’t registered, the first message may be to inform them of their status and tell them how to get registered. If the voter record indicates that the person votes only sporadically, the messaging might remind them that the midterms are important, too, and that “we have to elect a new Congress,” Dickerson said.

“It might shock and depress you how many people don’t know that it’s not just in presidential elections they can vote, but that they also get to elect a new Congress every two years,” Dickerson said.

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Dickerson told me the hardest part of the VoteWithMe project was convincing potential donors that a social approach to GOTV could move the needle for progressives in the midterms. In the end Dickerson found the donors, raising “between one and two million” dollars, a part of which was donated by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former CTO of the U.S. Todd Park.

Dickerson told me VoteWithMe is part of a movement within politics to rely more on social channels to connect with and activate potential voters. Among insiders, the approach is called “close social ties” or “relational organization.”

It’s driven by changing social norms. As people have become more digitally connected, they view cold calls from real-world strangers more negatively. “We’ve become a more closed society–we’re less likely to accept a call or open the door to someone we don’t know, and even if we do we’re less likely to listen to what they say,” Dickerson said.

At the same time, people are increasingly aware of, and worried about, the rampant harvesting of personal information that happens both in the social media world and in the world of political campaigning. “We’re really trying to figure out the balance between being respectful of the invasive nature of data collection, while still collecting enough data to give people something that actually works,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson says for-profit organizations using a relational organization approach to GOTV are being incentivized by campaigns to collect as much personal data as possible on voters, and then add it to the voter records, mailing lists, and donor lists maintained by the campaigns.

“We’re trying to reach the set of people to which that mode of engagement does not appeal,” Dickerson said.

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New Voter Army

Another Democratic campaign veteran, Jim Clark, has launched a digital GOTV initiative called New Voter Army that uses a similar approach. Clark was director of the nonprofit sector and national service for the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign.

But where VoteWithMe relies on mobile contact lists, NVA relies on Facebook contacts. NVA is an organizing platform that’s recruiting a network of volunteers in 76 congressional districts where Democrats have a good shot at taking a congressional seat away from the GOP in November. (Democrats need only 23 seats to flip party control of Congress.) The volunteers then use their own Facebook contacts to find, persuade, and motivate potential new voters. Essentially, come election day, the NVA volunteers re-contact their friends to get them out the door to vote, Clark told me.

If the the voter file indicates the targeted friend isn’t registered, NVA can help them do that via a partnership with TurboVote. Volunteers can also solicit donations for the campaigns via a partnership with ActBlue.

Clark points out that traditional GOTV initiatives involve people in call centers calling strangers, or people sitting at tables at public events talking to strangers. But people are far more likely to listen to, and be persuaded to action by, somebody they know personally, he said. Clark said that got him thinking about digital approaches to GOTV.

“I thought, ‘It’s 2018; most everyone is on social, they have cell phones–why not set up a GOTV campaign based on a friends-and-family approach,'” Clark said.

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NVA likens the approach to a “walk-a-thon” model where volunteers work with small groups of people whom they tend to know personally.

Part of a movement

Public voter record data is crucial to these new GOTV efforts. The data not only helps identify potential voters but also provides clues on how to persuade and recruit them. Political campaigns have been using this public voting record data to target voters for decades, but giving regular people access to the data is something new. And VoteWithMe and NVA aren’t the only ones doing it.

OutVote is similar to VoteWithMe in that the app checks the user’s contact list names against the voting record, and uses information from the record to create personalized text message content that the user can adopt to motivate friends in districts that matter. The key difference is that OutVote is a for-profit and is marketed to “activists” and political campaigns.

VoterCircle is another for-profit startup that offers voter record integration and custom messaging. But VoterCircle is meant to arm campaigns with digital tools they can then provide to supporters, so that they can find new supporters using their own contact lists.

The “friend-to-friend” approach to getting people out to vote is not new in 2018, but will likely be more of a factor in the midterm races this year than it was in 2016 elections.

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Actually, it’s OutVote that may have captured the true intent of the above GOTV tools with this blurb at its website:

“Friends don’t let friends not vote. Outvote is an app for getting your friends to vote. Outvote exists because your friends don’t vote.”

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We'll only know their exact effect when the developers can see in the voting record how many people recruited through their platforms actually got out and voted Democrat.