Tech and the 2018 Elections: Why Innovation is Not Enough - Lab736

Without the infrastructure to ensure that best practices, training, and tools are getting to the campaigns and people who need them, all the innovation in the world won’t help us win.

Kate Gage
Kate Gage
Feb 19, 2018 · 9 min read
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The Missouri Democratic Party HQ — an example of an awesome State Party

Democrats need to win in 2018. To win, we need good candidates in as many races as possible; candidates who will knock on doors, push Democratic messages, turn out voters and use their campaigns to collect critical voter data. We need to make it as easy as possible to run effective campaigns, lower the barriers to entry, and simplify access to the best, most affordable tools. It’s important, too, to leverage and strengthen existing networks and organizations already working with candidates. After spending the last nine months embedding teams of engineers, designers, and digital experts with local Democratic organizations, it’s clear that the existing structures fall short of many of these goals.

And we’re running out of time before the 2018 election.

Our team at Lab 736 is a SWAT team of technology, design, campaign, and security experts who have spent their careers bringing technology to bear on tough, complicated issues — the Ebola response, the federal immigration process,, among many others. Many of us served in the U.S. Digital Service (our name comes from the USDS HQ at 736 Jackson Place across from the White House) and we follow its user-centered approach by spending time in States, listening to the democrats and progressives doing the work, and designing around them. The themes below are informed by over 200 hours of interviews conducted in 2017. We are focused on the challenge of how technology can improve our chances of winning more elections.

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Lab 736 improving database systems with the Michigan Democratic Party

What we’ve discovered is that without the infrastructure to ensure that best practices, training, and tools are getting to the people who need them, all the innovation and technology in the world won’t help us win.

We believe that strong, resourced, well informed, talent heavy, local Democratic parties and caucuses that are open to new ideas, testing technology, and dedicated to delivering the best level of service possible to all Democrats, are critical to winning in 2018 and 2020. It is one of the only ways to ensure that the tech that Silicon Valley is building is getting into the hands of all candidates. Our research has shown us that the people are there, and they are amazing. But they need our help.

The challenges we have seen:

Campaign structures and cycles do not support the development, evaluation, and purchasing of good tech and security.

  • The cyclical nature of campaigns makes it difficult to evaluate new tools, retain knowledge, and and institutionalize that knowledge within an organization. A campaign is a startup that spins up and down in just a few months. Rarely do campaign staff or party organizers evaluate what worked, or did not work well, during a campaign. There is no guarantee that whatever knowledge is gained during one campaign will be used or useful two years later.
  • Most people believe contributing directly to candidates is the most effective way to elect more Democrats. While it is true that candidates need funding, oftentimes most of your donation will go to television ad buys. If you want to support multiple candidates, believe that we need to build infrastructure and a candidate bench now to prepare for 2020, or believe in the power of better technology to increase effectiveness, investing in the pipes and training to get tools to candidates is an investment that will have much greater long term impact.

Current technology is not meeting the needs of candidates and political organizations. It isn’t reaching down ballot candidates.

  • The technology landscape includes great tools but is increasingly confusing. The recent proliferation of campaign technology, especially on the Democratic side, has made it more complicated for decision makers to understand the differences among tech offerings. We often hear “It is scary to pay for technology.” And, in particular, there is not adequate training around those tools. We’re seeing great developments in new and improved tools thanks to innovations and investment from the political and tech communities and groups like Higher Ground Labs. We especially like Minivan for digital canvassing, MobilizeAmerica has built a great distributed volunteer management platform, and new products like VoterCircle have created new pathways to voter contact, but just the tools alone are not enough, and there is still a long way to go on basic campaign management and budgeting tech.[ed note: The DNC has been working to better catalogue these tools so we look forward to their work]. Many campaigns and parties use tech that was originally built for the private sector like GSuite and Slack, which is great but often need some amount of translation to be as effective as possible for a campaign setting.
  • When parties and campaigns do find money to buy technology, they miss out on economies of scale. Every party, campaign, and organization goes through the procurement and training process individually, even though they share many of the same needs. Every campaign and political organization makes its own technology adoption and procurement decisions, with very little guidance or advice available. Aside from VAN (the voter file management software), Democrats are not centrally purchasing technology to lower costs for all campaigns. We’re starting to see this move forward on the C3/C4 side, but not yet for campaigns.
  • Big technology buys at the national and large campaign level do not necessarily translate or transfer to the state and local level, either because the tools are not a good fit or because the kind of training and expertise required is missing. Tech hasn’t focused on down ballot races as a market, so often tools are either too expensive or not built to fill the gaps they have. We need to center different sized campaigns in the design process to ensure that tech and pricing is responsive to candidates on all levels and investments are made to incentivize interoperability and building on existing platforms. If you want people to do something, you have to make it easy.
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A Lab 736 designed security training at the Arizona Democratic Party HQ — we work through a Training of Trainers model to make sure lessons make it way to County Parties and Campaigns

Supporting the people and the networks is critical to distribution and overcoming these challenges in the long-term

  • Most State Parties, caucuses, and progressive organizations are open to learning and changing. We have been very impressed by the energy and willingness to reflect on their own systems and patterns and to seek better ways of doing things, especially around critical issues like their technical security. The resistance to change and self-reflection that we have sometimes encountered in government seem absent in the organizations working so hard to get into government. But they need help to know what to do and how to do it. They need to be trained and have places to turn for advice and execution. We need to meet them where they are and help them get to where they want to be. Organizations like Ragtag are working to address the support and link to tech volunteers but still need support to reach scale.
  • The people responsible for supporting candidates know they and their candidates need better technology, security and data. They are hungry for it. What they don’t know is where to start. Local political organizations have not prioritized technical literacy as a critical skill for their teams, are often underfunded and under resourced, and have inherited legacy technical systems and tools that may not fit their current needs. While local talent are often savvy and energetic about local politics, fundraising, and field organizing, they rarely know how to begin evaluating new technologies or their security posture. Technology use has been undervalued as a skill in local politics for many years, and that muscle is not developed. They struggle to imagine what is possible and find the technology landscape confusing.
  • There is an expectation that because of the 2016 email hacks that all Democratic organizations have learned their lessons and have great security protocols and training in place. That is not consistently true. There needs to be much more training available and on-demand advisory resources they can call on 24-hours a day. In the states we work with we do full security audits and trainings, but this is not a resource available for all state parties. These need to be put in place today so that every campaign starts with effective security protocols in place from day one.
  • Training Gap. Training Gap. Training Gap. We have consistently found that candidates or parties are interested in developing new skills, or knowing about a best practice that they should be utilizing. But when we ask who is providing those trainings, who they turn to for best practices, they would have only a partial answer. They may know about a great group doing data training, but that same group wouldn’t have a technology component, or security. Many training orgs focus on a few candidates, or candidates that fit certain profiles, but not all. The trainings should have a robust and well designed tech and security section, but often they are underdeveloped or not user friendly for communities with low technical literacy.

Each of our experiences told us that it is rarely just a lack of good tech. You always need to bring the people along if you want to reach scale.

Here’s why we at Lab 736 have focused on working with State Democratic Parties, Caucuses and other state level groups: They are the only ones incentivized to work with every Democratic candidate in their state, and positioned to reach them all, not just the ones in targeted races. They work with the other nodes- the DNC, DLCC, DCCC, DSCC, ASDC, the progressive C3/C4 networks, and coordinated campaigns. These groups are the pathway to scale and distribution for best practices and tech. Attempting to distribute to individual campaigns is not an effective approach to get the tools where they need to be. We need these partners to distribute both tools AND training.

We are seeing new and better tech rolled out to fill gaps everyday. State parties are being supported and strengthened around the country. State parties and caucuses aren’t going anywhere, and have extremely valuable relationships, local knowledge, and ability to open doors. If we can bring them along as partners, and put them and their candidates at the center of the design process, we can truly leverage the opportunities offered by technology.

That is why we created Lab 736. Rather than assume the reasons for the problems, or the challenges to adoption, we set out to test our assumptions about the tech deficit. In 2017, we partnered with four Democratic State Parties, embedding technologists and designers to do deep discovery around their use of technology, security practices, and how they are providing resources to Democrats running for office. We spoke with well over one hundred people, conducted hundreds of hours of interviews and meetings. We fixed some of the problems along the way, we acted as therapists for some former candidates, met amazing people fighting everyday to elect Democrats, and identified clear challenges to adoption and scale.

If we want more Democrats to run and succeed, we need to make it as easy and cheap as possible for them to do it well. If we invest in local talent, and build infrastructure that sustains the energy we’ve seen across progressive politics in the last year, we will see more doors knocked, more candidates running more effective campaigns, and a stronger talent pool for 2020.

One more thing: In my work in the global development technology sector we have similar challenges. How do you take digital and tech innovations from a culture of continual pilots and testing, with individual successes, and have them reach the millions of geographically and culturally diverse people who could use them. After years of decentralized support for individual technologies, the community came together and developed the Principles for Digital Development. While you may think these two problem spaces are very different, almost all of the principles map very well to the current state of political technology. I encourage anyone working on political technology issues to explore how we can learn from those who have already tackled similar issues in different contexts.


What we’ve learned in our year exploring how technology…

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