Reboot Democracy: Leveling the Playing Field
Guest Post by Jerry Weinstein
On Thursday November 15th, Reboot Democracy brought its traveling Democracy Tech roadshow (it’s been to DC, SF, Chicago, and LA) to the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute — a fitting host given that its initiative seeks to accelerate the pace of tech adoption and the launch of successful startups founded by the NYU community. As it turned out, all participants in the evening’s Startup Showcase were NYU alumni.
The evening’s approximately 50 attendees were undaunted by #Snowvember in New York City, which saw over 6 inches of snow, a record-breaking accumulation since the National Weather Service had first started tracking snowfall nearly 150 years ago. We didn’t know it at the time, but for many of us math nerds, the freak storm was an object lesson on the infallibility of data, where NWS didn’t even predict 6” of snow at 1%, yet, there it was.
I arrived with barely enough time to spare before the program was set to begin, quaffing red wine and a fistful of olives, as Reboot Democracy’s Executive Director, Emily Baum — the night’s M.C. — remarked that the snowflakes on my overcoat sparkled like diamonds.
The theme for the evening — Leveling the Playing Field — saw our Democracy Tech speakers and startups discussing the urgent need to rebalance power and demo examples of solutions that disrupt the status quo and have begun the process to fully engage our electorate.
In Emily’s warm introduction to the crowd — nine days after the 2018 Midterm elections there was a palpable sense not only of change, but of efforts rewarded for hours of on-the-ground labor — she began with a definition of Democracy Tech as “anything that strengthens small “d” democracy.”
In the Startup Showcase that followed, we saw 4 minute presentations manifesting this intention: A solution tackling the chronic problem of voter engagement. A tool to convert issue-driven passion into civic action. And a Big Idea to build a national pipeline of civic leaders.
First up was Jess Riegel, co-founder and CEO of Motivote who shared lessons learned from 2018 and the midterms. Motivote is a digital platform which aspires to make voting fun using behavioral economics. Its target demographic is 18–29 year olds — and it was certainly a driver in this election cycle which saw voter turnout among young Millennials and Gen Zs rise from 20% to 31%. Motivote leverages the power of social networking to build teams and nudge users to commit to vote. It curates “bite-sized” actions which are correlated with increased turnout and links to partners who have resources like voter guides and voter plans.
The slide above from Jess’ deck shows that 84% of activated users verified their vote with Motivote this past Election Day!
Going forward, Motivote aspires to scale up for 2020 and it is committed to helping its users — about 44% of them are first-time voters —plug into ongoing civic engagement. In fact, it is in talks with partners in Louisiana and Texas to use Motivote during the legislative session.
Sebastian Jimenez began his presentation by joking that where he’s from, the Dominican Republic, people are only passionate about a handful of things, like plantains. He was shocked when he got to NYU that his fellow students had opinions about everything — from immigration reform to gun control to climate change — but that most of them didn’t put their money or their time where their mouths were. They were Slacktivists at best, sitting in front of a monitor and “liking” Black Lives Matter tweets.
He co-founded BallotBox to transform passion into engagement. As an organizing principle, Sebastian offered that BallotBox “wants to make every offline encounter count.” To that end, one of the tools that BallotBox has successfully piloted replaces the pen and paper, that is still routinely used in canvassing, with mobile software that verifies all data fields. Because errors are introduced in the process of transcribing data from paper, 50–80% of the data collection is typically inaccurate. Using this solution BallotBox’s clients are seeing upwards of 95% data accuracy, while saving time and money. Ultimately, BallotBox wants to create an ecosystem connecting users with opportunities to make civic change.
Kyleigh Russ, co-founder and COO of Govern for America, opened her presentation with a little-known fact: that 40% of government workers would be eligible to retire over the next five years and there is no pipeline to replace them. The systems that are in place to find talent are antiquated, and the sector isn’t even allowed to recruit on campuses! To fill that gap, Govern for America is finding, recruiting, and training the next generation of public sector leaders and offering two-year full-time fellowships — think Teach for America for civic leadership — for recent college graduates for positions in state government. GFA is working with some 115 schools from Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), small liberal arts institutions, to the Ivy Leagues. Its first cohort launches this coming January and over the next two years it will offer 38 points of training as well as a two-week summer institute. While one might worry that it’s not “sexy” to work in the government sector, there has actually been an overwhelming demand to participate — hundreds of applications for thirty spots.
After a 15 minute break — Emily was committed to keeping the trains running on time — we pivoted from pitches and presentations to a group of Lightning Talks by three mavericks who have been in the trenches and have the battle scars to prove it.
Ben Yee: “If you don’t vote in primaries you don’t get a democracy. People knew this 150 years ago.”
Ben Yee started off the round of lightning talks, noting that he routinely gives 90 minute civic lessons and that a 5 minute talk would demand some… pruning. Ben shared his biography, noting that he’s a 10 year veteran in politics and policy, had been an Obama fundraiser, a Digital Director for the New York State Senate, and had been involved with Reinvent Albany. He was especially proud of being deeply immersed in leadership positions within the New York Democratic Party — he is a State Committeeman and loves teaching civics. Ben celebrated the behind-the-scenes volunteers who keep civil society going by serving on our Education Councils and Community Boards. Ben argued for greater accessibility into the process as well as the need to provide guidance to citizens. In the process, he made an inspiring case for everyone to take on an active role in local politics. And, modeling that behavior still more… he threw his hat into the race for NYC Public Advocate.
Mike Ward: We look at why people don’t vote and to change that we conquer “process barriers.”
Mike Ward is the TurboVote Program Director, an initiative of Democracy Works, which he described as a non-profit that builds technology and datasets to upgrade our democracy. Mike opened his chat by sharing voter turnout that most of the Reboot crowd was familiar with, but pointed out that with the latest numbers it appears that we will have had the highest percentage of turnout since 1914. But don’t pat yourself on the back quite so fast. He then went on to remind everyone what that means in real terms. Mayor DeBlasio, for example, was elected by effectively only 8.47% of the population. As Mike rightly said, “This is crazy.”
In addition to facilitating voter registration, Democracy Works also supports the Voting Information Project which provides voters access to official voting locations and ballot information through the Google Civic Information API and it builds tech for election officials, enabling them to safely track ballots from cradle to grave.
TurboVote focuses on “process barriers” to voting to diagnose why Americans don’t participate in elections and it has built a web application which helps eligible voters to register across the country. In 2017 TurboVote tracked 7,000 Federal, State, and Local elections. Just as Ben Yee believes that local politics is where we make change, Mike shares a similar passion. In Mike’s role at TurboVote he partners with social media companies, including Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. While they have been the subject of recrimination of late, he was witness to the upside: Through them TurboVote saw 5.3 million sign-ups this year, 90% of them Millennial. TurboVote helped 3 million individuals register during this election cycle alone. This is a great reminder that while tech tools are often built with an innate bias, they are still agnostic and organizations like TurboVote can have positive effects where our democracy is concerned, even with Facebook.
Yael Eisenstat: Those of you who are getting hyperlocal, I freaking love it. State government MATTERS!
Yael Eisenstat did not prepare remarks, deciding instead to riff off Ben and Mike. Yael is perhaps best known for her New York Times op-ed decrying Trump’s denigration of the intelligence community, and in the process, outing herself as a former C.I.A. officer. Yael leverages her formidable resume — on paper her experience reads like that of a 70 year old man — she’s been a national security advisor to Vice President Biden and just that night she had exited Facebook as its Global Head of Elections Integrity to start a frank discussion about the crisis of the moment we’re facing.
Since becoming a public figure she’s written about the breakdown in civil discourse, noting that we’ve gotten to the point where it’s easier to talk to terrorists in Somalia than to sit down with someone across the political aisle. In addition to her work as a global risk consultant and involvement with the Survivor Network, she is an Adjunct Professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, teaching a course, National Security Decision Making. While Yael seemed to be in awe of the work shared by our Startup Showcase, she couldn’t help but observe that there was something wrong that we needed to gamify voter engagement: “I voted because it was the right thing to do.”
While acknowledging that finding funders for Democracy Tech is a challenge, Yael ended her bracing talk with a call to action:
I still am a public servant in my heart. You may not get rich doing it, but you are making a contribution to this country if you can help inspire people to vote; to participate in our democracy; to not just “like” things on Facebook… More power to you!
Buckle Up! The “Open Mic” pitches were limited to 30 seconds.
Annafi Wahed stormed the stage, seemingly to outrace time, to pitch The Flipside — a daily newsletter which endeavors to burst our filter bubble where political op-eds are concerned. She and her fellow Millennial editors, evenly representing liberal and conservative perspectives, choose two issues each day and spend 6 hours reading content to agree on the best reads and then boil them down to a 5 minute read. Subscribe. It’s waaaay better than The Skimm.
Aaron Travis followed Annafi to introduce the Reboot Democracy community to WeVote.us, a voter education platform for elections across America. During the past election cycle, WeVote created 40,000 personalized ballots for its users. WeVote is in the midst of its first large-scale public beta redesign in time for 2020. If you are interested in partnership, they would love to hear from you!
Yours Truly, Jerry Weinstein, pitched PNN, a daily direct-to-Facebook newscast targeting non-voting Democrats and Independents. We launched in response to the data that Conservatives had a 7:1 advantage dominating video content on social media; we wanted to rebalance the equation. We launched after Labor Day and are being seen by as many as 600,000 viewers a day. We try and stay out of the news cycle and look for stories that inspire and activate civic engagement. Pitch me!
Even as the total effect of Reboot’s presenters was like a shot of civic adrenaline, not gonna lie, my brain was exhausted by the end of the evening.
At Emily’s insistence from both the beginning of the night to our final parting, each of us tried to make at least two new friends and find not what divides us — but what brings us together.
Until we next Reboot!