The Internet Election of 2012? Votizen, Politix, Politify Work to Wake Up Voters

4/5/12Follow @wroush

The Tea Party and the Occupy movement have each had their shot at disrupting the U.S. political process. Now Silicon Valley wants a turn.

It was bound to happen eventually. As industries from consumer goods to travel to healthcare have begun to yield to the power of Valley-birthed Internet technologies like social media, targeted advertising, cloud and mobile computing, and big data analytics, local Web entrepreneurs have naturally begun to turn their attention to political campaigns—one of the last bastions of 20th-century thinking about media and advertising.

It’s a field crying out for the efficiencies the Internet can bring. With the exception of the Obama campaign’s sophisticated social media efforts in 2008, most political organizations have continued to rely on printed voter rolls, phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, TV ads, direct mail, and other pre-Facebook-era tools to sway voters and get them to the polls. To hoist this huge and lumbering apparatus into action every four years—every two years for House races—campaigns must spend billions of dollars. Which means politicians must raise billions of dollars. Which—especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed the so-called super PACs—makes elections into a kind of retail sport dominated by the biggest donors.

But what if average citizens could use the power of online media, cloud software, and social networking to organize themselves? What if everyone had a political profile online, similar to their social-media and behavioral profiles? What if people had the data they needed to judge candidates based on the impact of their policy proposals, rather than the effectiveness of their ads? Then candidates might be forced to listen to what voters want, and to campaign on substance rather than style.

That, at least, is the argument being made by a new generation of Internet entrepreneurs working to alter the dynamics of this year’s elections. I’ve been talking lately with the founders of three politics-focused ventures in the Bay Area: Mountain View, CA-based Votizen, Palo Alto, CA-based Politix, and Berkeley, CA-based Politify. It’s clear that their founders see the current election cycle as an opportunity to show exactly how the Internet can put power back in the hands of voters—and, if it all works out, put a little money in their own investors’ pockets.

If the 2004 presidential elections were the first in which bloggers played an important role, and the 2008 elections the first in which campaigns woke up to the power of Facebook, YouTube, and the “youth vote,” then 2012 could be the year when voters themselves start to harness the Internet—at least, if these new startups can gain a little more traction between now and November. Here’s a rundown of the companies I’ve been studying.

Votizen: Helping Voters Find One Another

At the heart of Votizen you’ll find a pair of entrepreneurs whose votes, ironically, have canceled each other out in the last few presidential elections. CEO David Binetti voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and McCain in 2008, while his co-founder Jason Putorti, the startup’s lead designer, was a Gore-Kerry-Obama man.

You can see all of that on their Votizen profiles, which, like those of every other Votizen user, feature mock campaign stickers documenting both their voting histories (that is, whether or not they voted in a given election) and their self-reported political leanings. Declaring who you’ve voted for in the past and who you endorse in upcoming election is one of the first things you do upon joining Votizen. The next is to connect your Votizen profile to your online social networks, which gives you a view of the voting histories of your friends on Facebook and the people you follow on Twitter. From there, you can scroll through your friend lists and invite selected friends to endorse your endorsement. (It’s a little like sending a FarmVille request.)

The point of all this? In Stage One of Votizen’s grand plan, it’s simply to foster greater political engagement by making it easier for voters to build self-organized blocs around a specific candidate. “When you have voters connect with each other, form a group, and say ‘These are the things I believe in—now you tell me, Mr. Candidate, why you deserve our vote,’ you have the makings of something very powerful and disruptive,” says Binetti.

As for Stage Two, I’ll get to that in a minute. But this isn’t the first time Binetti has waded into politics and technology. Back in 2000, the UCLA MBA and marketing strategist co-founded FirstGov.gov, a search engine and portal for all things related to the federal government (the name was later changed to USA.gov). He went on to start Capitolix, which sold a Web-based application for campaign management.

After that he headed back into hard-core technology, handling marketing for one company building wireless sensor networks and another building data center management software. But he never stopped paying attention to politics. He says the idea for Votizen came to him during the economic meltdown of 2008.

“I was sitting at home watching the fiscal stimulus debate in Congress, and what I was troubled by was that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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