Meet The Techies Trying To Create The TurboTax Of Voting
Y Combinator’s Sam Altman is back at it again with the civic engagement.
For first-time voters, the process can be new and unknown — “just like having sex,” said Erika Reinhardt, co-founder of VotePlz, a nonpartisan nonprofit that launched today. “Your parents don’t sit you down and tell you, 'this is how to vote.'”
VotePlz aims to make the process easier for young voters, a powerful demographic that now rivals Baby Boomers. VotePlz’s four cofounders all hail from the tech industry and wanted to approach voter registration like a startup: looking for ways to make it digital, frictionless, and game-like.
The organization is funded a lot like a startup too, with money raised through cofounder Sam Altman, whose day job is president of Y Combinator, a marquee startup incubator. Altman told BuzzFeed News that he has raised funding in the “low single digit millions” from other, unnamed tech industry insiders who also want more young voters to have a voice in the presidential election.
Altman and Reinhardt are both directors of VotePlz. Up until three weeks ago, Reinhardt was in product engineering for Planet Labs, a global imaging startup.
“We came together to think about what we could do to bring what we’re good at — which is consumer software — to voting registration and turnout,” said Altman.
“I want this to be the TurboTax of voter registration,” Reinhardt told BuzzFeed News. “You come in, you’re faced with this crazy set of rules that vary by state, you just don’t know what those rules are, and you often don’t know your own information.” Ten percent people surveyed by VotePlz, she said, didn’t even know if they were registered.
According to Altman, “Every year it’s gotten more and more difficult for young people to vote.” Many states require registrants to sign a form and mail it in “and most young people don’t have printers or stamps anymore.” What’s more, he added, with young people owning cars as a lower rate, they may have a hard time driving to the polls.
The nonprofit spent the past three weeks building the software and brushing up on the rules. Using the VotePlz website, young people can check if they’re registered to vote by entering their name and address, then register online in states that allow it, or get registration forms and a stamped envelope mailed to them for free, which costs VotePlz about $1.20 per person. There are also features to check if you’re entitled to time off of work to go to the polls and a way to send an automated message to your boss if you are.
The cofounders spitball with the bravado of a venture-backed startup, rather than a cash-strapped nonprofit, so it’s hard to tell when exactly a feature will be launched, if at all. But Altman mentioned the possibility of open-sourcing or building an API to allow others to white-label its software.
During our interview, Altman and Reinhardt were joined by their other cofounders, including Fouad Matin, who left to join VotePlz after his first week at Segment, a Y Combinator-backed customer data analytics startup co-founded by Reinhardt’s husband. Matin said he was working on a leaderboard as a way to gamify urging your friends to register to vote. Altman also teased the possibility of “subsidized Uber/Lyft rides” to polling stations to address that ride problem. “We’re still looking into the legality and the budget of this,” said Altman. “That obviously gets more expensive, so we may raise more money.”
But despite its ambitions, for now VotePlz looks and works much like more established online voter registration portals, such as Vote.org, TurboVote, and Rock the Vote, which already offer their own twist on TurboTax for voters.
In July, Rock the Vote, announced a $4.5 million campaign called #TruthtoPower that aims to register an additional two million voters in time for the general elections. Jesse Moore, Rock the Vote's vice president of civic engagement, said that the nonprofit, which is now 26-years-old, is working with Twitter and Tinder to grab potential voters on their mobile phones. Meanwhile, TurboVote, which partnered with BuzzFeed for a voter registration campaign this summer and has inked partnerships with 30 corporations and nonprofits and 260 colleges and universities. This week, a link to TurboVote started showing up on Starbucks cup sleeves.
Evan Engstrom executive director of Engine, a political advocacy group for startups, said that the slow pace of government compared to Silicon Valley’s innovation cycle is the “most obvious impediment” keeping the tech industry out of politics. “There's also a big disconnect between how tech issues are resolved and how policy is made,” he wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “[I]n tech, it's almost always best to implement a quick, precise, narrow fix to any engineering problem, whereas policy these days tends to get made through massive omnibus bills that can make easy fixes difficult.”
It sounds like a classic case of Silicon Valley solutionism, but Brandon Naylor, communications director of Democracy Works, which runs TurboVote, said that when it comes to voter registration, a technological fix is absolutely necessary. Data collected by TurboVote indicates that 60 percent of people who did not vote in the last presidential election did so because of “process issues, rather than some level of apathy.”
That said, using consumer software tactics has its limits. “Imagine if you could register to vote by Snapchat, just by like snapping a picture of your driver’s license and we’d take care of it,” said Ari Weinstein, a software engineer and the fourth cofounder. (Weinstein and Matin were both recipients of the Thiel fellowship.) I asked Altman if he had contacted Snapchat. “We’re only three weeks old,” said Altman, so VotePlz’s staff of about six full time employees and handful of part-timers has been focused on the base products. “Now that we have that done, I think we’ll play around with things,” like snapping a photo of your driver’s license or even just texting in a picture of your license, .
"Imagine if you could register to vote by Snapchat"
Naylor isn’t familiar with VotePlz, because it just launched, but he sounded skeptical about automating that part of the process. “There haven’t been a lot of secretaries of state who have opened up to taking pictures of driver licenses,” he said.
In this way, VotePlz seems constricted by the same naivete as other recent acts of Silicon Valley interventionism, such as investor Shervin Pishevar’s plans for an app that would reduce police violence or even Altman’s research on building a new city from scratch. Tech moguls are flexing their muscle in the civic arena more often these days, but passion projects tend to come with a lot of promises and little accountability.
But Altman and Reinhardt had a reasonable, albeit jargon-y retort for skeptics: Voter registration is not a zero-sum game. In other words, picture Google vs. Uber vs. Tesla vs. GM etc in self-driving cars, except if everyone was actually in it for the environment.
Altman is optimistic about the social pressure created by a leaderboard that encourages users to register more users. “We’ll do the traditional stuff like advertising and direct messaging that you would expect that everybody else does,” said Altman, but perhaps the startup tricks could catch on faster.
“The chances are slim, these things are always hard — but if we could really get the social thing to do well….,” he said, trailing off.