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

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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 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 proxy election—allowing people to “vote” for their favorite candidates for state, local, and federal office—that quickly attracted 200,000 participants. That gave the startup an idea for a way to overcome the traditional geographic fragmentation of its audience. “Lots of people go to our local forum pages, but the real question we had was what we could do that would appeal to all of our users in one place,” Tolles says. “In the last couple of elections, we saw huge amount of traffic, so we decided to double down around that.”

Tolles calls Politix, which debuted just a month ago, “a place to build your political profile by interacting with the news.” At first glance, it looks like any other site optimized for iPhone or Android devices. (A desktop version is coming soon, but Topix wanted to lead with the mobile version because “our biggest growth is on the mobile Web,” Tolles says.) It’s the stuff going on one level below the headlines that makes Politix different from other news sites.

Every story on Politix ends with what Tolles labels a “call to action”—usually, a question designed to provoke readers to leave comments. A story about a move to repeal “stand your ground” laws like Florida’s, for example, ended with the question “will tightening up gun laws prevent another Trayvon Martin case?” Members can “vote up” other member’s comments, and the total number of votes you’ve received shows up on your profile. So do your answers to the poll questions Politix publishes approximately twice a day, such as “Should states get to ban abortion?” or “Should it be legal for gay couples to adopt children in every U.S. state?”

As you surf the site, in other words, you build up a reputation and a public point of view. For some users, this might be a way to advertise their beliefs or advocate a position. For others, it might simply be a way to figure out what they believe, or to find like-minded people they can follow—all in the context of an ever-changing news landscape. “To become informed you have to engage and interact,” says Tolles. “A lot of political sites are doing something very static. You check out who your friends are voting for, but there is no compelling reason to go back day after day because a lot of that stuff doesn’t change. Whereas news is a way for people to interact all the time.”

In Tolles’s audacious vision, Politix could eventually become one of the main places where Web and mobile users tend to the political aspects of their online identities. He doesn’t think other social sites are well suited for this. “LinkedIn is the place for your career identity. Facebook is the place for your friends—but no one wants to be friends with the person who is only talking politics. The point of Politix is to have a central place for your political identity online.”

Topix has increased its staff by 20 percent over the last six months to get Politix up and running, Tolles says, and plans to keep the site around long past the 2012 election, as a forum for advocacy on many issues. The company is “out talking to political campaigns” about advertising within the site, Tolles says, but even if the ads don’t materialize, Politix could help Topix tap a new national audience that it isn’t already reached by its local news aggregators.

And along with other politics-oriented sites, it will help shore up the case for the Internet as a medium for political engagement, Tolles says. “I am a Silicon Valley triumphalist,” he says. “The Internet is in charge of the music industry. It is increasingly in charge of the movie industry. It’s a big part of consumer financial services. But in politics, we aren’t in charge yet. We as a populace should demand that the Internet be our primary access point to the political process.”

Politify: Privileging Data Over Emotion

If there’s a theme to the new generation of politics sites, it’s that they don’t have proven revenue streams yet. Their founders, like Tolles, are driven as much by their passions for politics and technology as by their business instincts. And that’s the case again with our third startup, Politify, which is the creation of three UC Berkeley students who work on the startup in their spare time between classes.

Politify offers Web-based software that helps voters see how the tax and spending policies proposed by the leading candidates in the 2012 presidential primary elections will affect them financially. Say you’re part of a married couple, both around 40 years old, with two young kids and a household income of $140,000. According to Politify’s financial models, you should probably vote for Barack Obama in the primaries, because his policies will bring you a net benefit of roughly $11,700, including $8,000 in tax benefits and $3,700 in increased federal services. Mitt Romney would be a more costly choice—his policies would get you $8,350 in tax benefits but would reduce federal services by $4,800, for a net gain of only $3,550.

“The main value proposition is showing the impact of a political scenario,” says Nikita Bier, the Berkeley student who is Politify’s co-founder and CEO. Bier, who is pursuing a double major in political economy and business administration, explains that he spent part of his undergraduate time in Copenhagen and Paris, studying Scandinavian and French tax policy. When he got back, he said, it suddenly struck him as odd that Americans—unlike their European counterparts—tend to join political parties based on their ideology, not their occupational allegiances. This means U.S. voters often wind up voting against their own economic self-interest. “Currently no one uses anything empirical when they vote,” Bier says. “The primary criteria is an emotional response. I think that is very dangerous when picking the most powerful person in the world.”

Politify’s algorithms break down everything into dollar terms. Using data from each candidates’ campaigns, plus an econometric model contributed by a UCSD economics doctoral student named Andrew Chamberlain, the company gauges the impact of each candidate’s proposals by showing how they’d change an individual’s (or a family’s) tax burden and federal benefits, including general benefits such as infrastructure investment. If you’re single and you earn more than $120,000 per year, for example, your additional tax burden under a second Obama Administration would probably outweigh any increase in federal benefits, which might sway you toward the Republicans. “In just six questions we can tell you what the ideal scenario is for you,” says Bier.

Politify has been developing its modeling software since last fall, and opened it up to the general public in February. Since then, visitors have run 170,000 forecasts through the site. The startup has gotten noticed by the Obama campaign, it counts Pandora co-founder Will Glaser and noted economist Emmanuel Saez as advisors, and just today it won $20,000 in the “Information Technology for Society” portion of the Big Ideas @ Berkeley competition. of Of course, whether you believe Politify’s financial projections are useful depends on whether you trust the algorithms behind them, and whether you think political choices should come down to the math of the material exchanges between citizens and government. But Bier thinks even a small injection of empiricism would “disrupt the electoral map.” He means that literally—Politify is getting ready to publish maps that show “which districts vote against their self-interest,” he says. “We’ve found some surprising things.”

Interestingly, there is almost nothing social about Politify, other than the fact that the company has a Twitter account and a Facebook page. For Bier, the most natural application of the Internet to politics is in the area of data and analytics—not social networking. “A lot of startups in this space have tried to make politics social—almost needlessly social,” he says. “Expressing political views on Facebook creates a very hostile conversation. There was even a study published a few weeks ago that said users who post frequently about politics get de-friended. Your relationship to government is a material exchange, essentially. There is very little incentive to make that a public thing.”

Over time, Bier says, Politify will work to introduce additional types of models, and make it possible for media outlets, campaign organizations, and advocacy groups to embed the software in their own websites, perhaps with the algorithms tweaked to reflect their own economic assumptions. The Sierra Club, for example, might make the case that every $1 in federal spending on environmental regulation yields $3 in benefits, while the oil and gas lobby would probably say exactly the opposite.

The startup’s ultimate goal is to become known as a sort of public policy dashboard for voters—”a Mint.com for politics” (Bier’s words, not mine!). Bier and his co-founders haven’t started to investigate revenue opportunities. But like their counterparts at Votizen and Topix, they have their eyes on the $1.5 billion that political campaigns spend on online advertising during election years.

* * *

Are voters really data-driven? Is politics personal enough for most voters to make them care about having an online “political identity”? Do people think of browsing and responding to news articles as a potentially political act? Do they want to use their existing social networks to spread their political beliefs? Those are new and important questions being probed by the new class of election-year startups. The true test, for most of these companies, may not come until after this summer’s party conventions, and maybe not until after Labor Day, the traditional starting gun for serious Presidential politicking. That’s when we’ll see how many voters think of these sites as tools for taking charge of their political lives—and how many candidates see them as tools for reaching voters.

“Campaigns spend money to get votes,” says Votizen’s Binetti. “If you can deliver those votes through a new mechanism that is more intuitive, more scalable, and more likely to be responded to, I think that is a vastly superior method.” Only time, and the actual vote on November 6, will tell whether that’s true.

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

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