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

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it was obvious that nobody was taking the time to read the legislation,” Binetti says. “It was going through way too quickly, for the scope of what it was. I was upset and I wanted to write a letter. But I knew they wouldn’t care about that letter, because they don’t know if I vote or not. But I said ‘Wait a minute—I can prove that now.’ So the original idea was very simple: It was that [my representatives] would probably listen to me more if I could attach my voting record—and the fact that I vote 100 percent of the time—to my mail.”

Simple in theory, difficult in practice. To help average citizens document their own voting histories, you’d have to collect and merge voter rolls from more than 3,000 counties across the U.S. These files—the records of who is registered in each district, under what party affiliation, and who voted in primary and general elections, though not, of course, how they voted—are available from government offices for a fee. Typically, only campaigns and large political organizations ever bother to buy them.

That’s where Votizen, founded in 2009 with $1.5 million in angel funding from Silicon Valley angels like Dave McClure, Ron Conway, Keith Rabois, Mark Goines, and Aydin Senkut, started out. By collating disparate records from across the country—including some stored on archaic magnetic tape—it has now built up a database with 200 million rows of voter information, all “normalized” to correct for duplications, address changes, and formatting differences between databases. I can tell from Votizen’s records, for example, that my own group of Facebook and Twitter friends includes 426 voters spread across 37 states. I can even see whether my friends are registered as Democrats or Republicans, and what percentage of recent elections they’ve voted in.

Making all this data comprehensible, and helping users figure out what to do with it, is Putorti’s job. Putorti was the lead designer at Mint.com, the personal finance service acquired by Intuit for $170 million in 2009, and went on to a gig as designer-in-residence at Bessemer Venture Partners. A longtime political-news junkie, Putorti says that after Mint and Bessemer he wanted to “take the political passion and combine it with my interest in technology and social media and make something out of it.” He’d built a news portal called Capitol Circle in his spare time, but when he met Binetti, it was a case of “founder/market fit,” he says.

Mint’s financial dashboards are considered such a paragon of usability around Silicon Valley that dozens of startups now describe themselves as “the Mint.com of healthcare,” “the Mint.com of home energy,” and so forth. You won’t hear Binetti or Putorti describe Votizen as the Mint.com of politics, but there’s an undeniably Minty flavor to the site, right down to the charts, maps, badges, and typefaces on each user’s profile.

The whole site is designed, Putorti says, to emphasize two immediate benefits. “Number one is discovering the value of your friends through a political lens, by seeing how they are registered and who you might be aligned with,” he says. “The second part is, now that you have identified these voters, what do you do with them. You can say to your friends, ‘Hey, this is who I’m voting for, do you want to work together to do it?’” You can also send messages to people in your Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn networks to tell them about your endorsements and ask them who they plan to vote for.

But if there’s a limitation to Votizen, it’s that it’s not yet clear—after all endorsing and network-building is done—what the startup wants users to do next. That’s where Stage Two comes in. The way Binetti and Putorti explain it, a social network with a critical mass of verified voters would, by definition, be a huge honey pot for political candidates and their campaigns. “Politicians want to know three things—who is in my district, are they registered to vote, and can I reach them with a message that matters to them,” says Binetti. “Social [networking] combines these three buckets on a scale that nobody has been able to do before.”

Once Votizen is big enough, in other words, it will be able to charge campaigns for access to its users. Binetti points to LinkedIn’s paid InMail product—which allows users to pay for the ability to message people who aren’t in their immediate networks—as a possible model. “It could take a lot of forms,” he says. “If there is a market that appreciates the value you are creating, a business model will reveal itself.”

But ideally, the influence wouldn’t run in just one direction. Binetti and Putorti both say they hope Votizen will help users build coalitions that can actively shape campaign platforms, or even spawn new candidacies. “The longer term vision is to get a good number of people in a specific district that can actually change the outcome of a race,” says Putorti. “If you get people together they can say ‘Hey, we represent these values and here is what we want in a candidate.’ It could give traction to candidates who wouldn’t bother to run otherwise because they don’t have the connections to special interests.”

The 11-person startup topped off its coffers this February with a $750,000 financing round that included celebrity angels like Sean Parker and Ashton Kutcher. But while Votizen’s site has obvious utility to people who are already active in politics, it’s not clear whether it has yet discovered a Mint-like value proposition that will keep average users coming back to the site week after week. If it does, it may succeed in its ultimate goal of forcing campaigns to reach out to a broader set of interest groups. “This market is as ripe for disruption as any big market,” says Putorti. In the future, he says, “It’s obvious to me that social media is going to change politics, it’s just a question of how. I think we are well positioned to do it, and as a side benefit, I think we’re helping to make the country better.”

Politix: Engaging Through News

To understand Politix, a mobile website focused on political news, you need to know about its parent organization, Topix. The Palo Alto-based company was the 2002 creation of Chris Tolles and several other alumni of the Open Directory Project, a 1990s-era effort to build a crowdsourced alternative to Yahoo. It’s a geographically organized news aggregator and community forum site, where the first stories and discussions you see are always those pertaining to your home city. Over 10 million people visit the site each month, which makes it one of the 150 largest Web properties in the world. About a third of those visitors come to the site using the browsers on their phones, according to Tolles.

During the 2004 and 2008 presidential election cycles, Topix saw big spikes in readership, Tolles says. In 2008 the site ran a … Next Page »

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

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