These millennials are hoping civic tech will get young people in the election game
Seth Flaxman always considered himself civic-minded and politically engaged. And yet, while living away from home when he was in graduate school — at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, no less — he missed voting in several elections.
"I knew I wasn't an apathetic person," he said in a phone interview. "I cared about lots of issues and followed elections."
Flaxman, 31, is not alone in experiencing this paradox of political engagement and electoral inaction. At an estimated 69.2 million, millennials now rival the 69.7 million Baby Boomers as the largest voting bloc in the U.S. But while millennials, like Flaxman, have been engaged and passionate about issues they believe in, their turnout at the polls continues to be the lowest of any age group — after peaking at 50% in 2008, it fell to 46% in 2012.
But Flaxman has been trying to change that. In 2010, he and Kathryn Peters, 32, founded Democracy Works, a civic-tech studio with a mission to "bring the awesomeness of the internet to the process of democracy." Their first project was TurboVote, an online tool designed, as Flaxman put it, to make voting "seamless, easy and intuitive" by doing things like texting its half-a-million users when it's time to vote and facilitating applications for absentee ballots. In March, DemocracyWorks launched the TurboVote Challenge, a campaign to boost U.S. voter turnout to 80% by 2020 (Mic is a partner).
TurboVote is just one of several civic-minded tech ventures launched by millennials looking to re-engage, energize and mobilize their peers to get in the electoral game.
"There's nothing more powerful than a majority of people voting for something," said Flaxman.
Tech Injections for Elections
"Most people in government are hungry for good technology," Flaxman said. The technology that did exist could only be found in election campaigns, he said; government, meanwhile, lacked many modern tools and resources to effectively communicate with and engage constituents. What's more, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs saw little value in pursuing nonprofit enterprises, however admirable the mission. As a result, those who understand Congress typically don't understand technology, and vice versa. "It took a nonprofit tech startup like ours that was willing to put in the hard work," said Flaxman.
Other like-minded civic startups have joined TurboVote in using mobile apps and social media platforms to make voting and legislation more accessible and transparent to everyday citizens — particularly smartphone-wielding, Facebook-clicking millennials.
"If there is any group of problem-solving-oriented, service-directed people, it's millennials," Seamus Kraft, 32, co-founder of the OpenGov Foundation, said in a phone interview. "Technology is the critical infrastructure of our work lives, of our personal lives, of our social lives, our artistic creative lives. It is not the critical infrastructure of our civic lives." At least, not yet.
The OpenGov Foundation's Madison Project seeks to make the inner-workings of government more publicly accessible. "Madison is growing into the operating system for legislature in the Internet age," Kraft said. With Madison, people can explore and comment on any piece of legislation as it's being written.
Connecting Congress and Constituents
Like OpenGov's Madison, PopVox, a nonprofit civic engagement platform, seeks to connect people directly with their elected representatives and active legislation. When PopVox users find a bill they care about, they can register their support or opposition to it and submit further input explaining their positions. Like a "Legislative LinkedIn," the platform acts as an organized record for Capitol Hill staffers to see how verified constituents really feel on issues.
"We're building a road, we're not telling people how to drive," said Marci Harris, 42, CEO and co-founder of PopVox, in a phone interview. Helping people "understand how the process works and have places to enter [inspires a] positive cycle that makes people more effective in their advocacy and activism," Harris said.
Because social media is a vital tool for politically engaged millennials, PopVox leverages Twitter and Facebook as a "big feedback loop" on which issues in Congress really hit home for people, according to Whitney Wyszynski, 24, PopVox's content manager. Gavel Down, PopVox's weekly email wrap-up, helps people stay up-to-date on congressional happenings.
When it came to encouraging connections between voters and their representatives — elected or aspiring — Keya Dannenbaum took a cue from online dating sites. After working for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, Dannenbaum, now 33, founded ElectNext in 2011 as an "eHarmony of elections," matching users to their most compatible policymaker like a dating site would to potential suitors. After rebranding as Versa, the company was acquired by the online petition hub Change.org.
Ultimately, said Dannenbaum, now a general manager at Change.org, the goal is to inspire young people to become more politically engaged and active within their communities. In a phone interview, she maintained that the most effective change happens at the local level, where the stakes have a direct impact on people's lives.
That same goal of direct impact is what animates the work of OpenGov Foundation. "What we're really doing is helping [members in government] activate that public service and make it real and make it impactful and then activate your rights as a citizen and your aspirations of a community," Kraft said.
"We're going to be running the show very soon," he added. "This is our future we're talking about. This is the future of everybody who's a millennial."