NEWS: New Voting App Promises “Unbiased” Data and a Matchmaker Capability Based on Aligned Voting Preferences
As the presidential election in November draws closer, a startup has created an app with resources for voters to stay informed.
This app then proceeds to take user data, with their permission, and sells it to a bunch of demographics, including those running for office and political consultants.
VotingSmarter ‘s mission is to match users to political candidates, in what it says is an “unbiased” way.
Founder and CEO Terry Crandall told OCSN that the app is essential right now because, “Your vote is your voice.”
“It is equal — one vote doesn’t count more than another based on a voter’s race or ethnicity,” he said. “2020 has brought us crisis after crisis, demonstrating the fact that our government has a huge impact on our daily lives. VotingSmarter helps voters cut through the bias, the noise, and the BS.”
Crandall pointed to the debates over policing, racial inequality and the coronavirus.
“Most people either love or hate how their federal government is handling each, how their state is handling each, and how their city is handling each,” he said. “Not to mention the fact that every news story is about the single issue/crisis of the day now.”
VotingSmarter, with HQ in Irvine, takes a user’s preferences across a multitude of political issues that they give varying levels of significance to, and then matches them to the candidates and interest groups they are most in alignment with.
While some people can do this for themselves, for others, the app helps those who may have divergent views within their own party, i.e. there’s a Bernie Democrat and a Biden Democrat and a Jeb Bush Republican and a Trump Republican.
Add that to the fact that approximatley 30-40% of people are independent or have no party affiliation, many have recently switched parties, and some may even not be correct about the party they think they’ve already matched with.
“Today, party affiliation is the top ‘shortcut’ that people use to choose whom to vote for and…look at the results,” Crandall said. “Are most people happy with American politics? According to approval ratings, no they aren’t. It seems voting the party line hasn’t worked out very well for the country.”
Effects of COVID 19 on the Business
The pandemic and its ensuing repercussions have led to a delay in some of VotingSmarter’s grant funding, as well as lower valuations in the venture space, Crandall said.
It’s also made collaboration more difficult.
“However, it’s also shone a light on the fact that elections have massive consequences,” Crandall said.
While this is a given, in any country that’s democratic, or still has some vestiges of democracy, as the U.S. still does, Crandall said voter turnout tells a different story.
“Take Atlanta Mayor Keesha Bottoms’ recent (win),” he said. “There are approximately 500,000 eligible voters in the Atlanta area. She received about 26% of the vote on election day and her top opponent received about 22%. When a special run-off election was held to determine the winner, only about 95,000 people voted. That’s less than 1/5 of the electorate. Not to mention she won by only 759 votes. That’s 0.15% of the electorate. There were far more than 759 people marching in the streets in Atlanta, who felt like they have no voice, (and, therefore) didn’t vote, who may have been the deciding vote for mayor.”
Crandall also pointed to the decline in voter turnout in the presidential election in 2016. Only about 55% of eligible voters showed up. That was a 20-year low, and think about the small margins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that decided that election.
“People have let their lives get in the way of being engaged and informed politically, and VotingSmarter is here to lower those opportunity costs,” he said.
The catalyst for creating the app for Crandall was learning about “rational ignorance” in grad school and imagining a solution. And, then teaching about the Iron Triangle and political economy to his students at Chapman University.
Rational ignorance is the idea that people consciously choose to make uninformed decisions. i.e. going on a Tinder date vs. getting married — the level of due diligence is very different, he said.
“It’s rational to simply meet a person because they are cute, without knowing anything about them, but not to marry them,” he said. “In voting, people place a low value on their single vote, therefore they don’t think it’s worth hours and hours of research to be informed, and instead choose a shortcut like political party, attractiveness, height, race, gender, charm, etc. (unless you’re a political nerd/junky that enjoys the search like me, and even I am getting a bit weary of it all).”
For example, many voters in 2000 said they chose George W. Bush over Al Gore because they would rather have a beer with Bush than Gore.
“Whether someone would be a good drinking buddy or not is not really a great predictor of how they will lead the free world,” he said. “Elections lead to long-term relationships like marriages, lasting two, four, six, eight years, with some even lasting decades. They aren’t one night stands like users often find on Tinder.”
Besides Crandall, some of the other C-level execs are Joshua Martinez (CTO/CIO); Robin Cain (COO) and
Anubhav Tripathi, who serves as research director.
The team is now up to 41 people, including three advisors.
Nine of the employees areprofessionals out of school — many with Masters degrees. The remaining are undergrad and grad students from schools like Brown, NYU, UC Berkley, USC, Northwestern and Georgetown.
And, like most every other startup, they’ve been working without a paycheck.
The team is diverse ethnically and politically, Crandall said.
“We treat each other with empathy and respect, and while each of us believe we are individually correct in our view of the world, we are all open to the possibility that we are wrong, and we are dedicated to not allowing our own biases to infect our work,” he said.
Being located in OC, near Crandall’s network of former students and colleagues from Chapman, has helped the company get talent and resources, he said.
The company is building an iOS version of its app for iPhones that it plans to submit to the app store this month.
Crandall said he’s bootstrapped the company, with about $20,000.
VotingSmarter is also considering a seed round to add additional functionality to the app and for marketing once the app is live. It would seek to raise $250,000.
Crandall created VotingSmarter as a social benefit corporation.
A benefit corporation is a traditional corporation with modified obligations committing it to higher standards of purpose, accountability and transparency.
VotingSmarter has partnered with the nonprofit Givsum Foundation as its 501c3 fiscal sponsor.
“There has not been, and there never will under this arrangement, any pass-through income from the app to shareholders, like a for-profit business would enjoy,” Crandall said.
He added that the fiscal sponsorship is a stopgap, and the company is planning on filing for its own 501c3 application after the election, when team members have more free time and the company can afford the attorney’s fees.
“We couldn’t risk the months-to-years it takes to get approved before this election,” he said. “When it comes to making money, we have chosen a ‘nonprofit sustainability model,’ where revenue, not donations, pays for operations. This is crucial for a nonprofit that works on elections, given the dormant periods of voter engagement.”
As far as revenue goes, there are two memberships that candidates and interest groups can join.
One is the Data Dashboard Membership, an anonymized dataset, like exit polling data, sort of the macro view of users’ preferences, sorted by geography and scrubbed of any and all data that might reveal whom they are.
Other entities can also join this monthly (or annual) membership for access to this data.
The second membership is only for candidates and groups with dating profiles in the app and is called the Profile Membership.
This membership allows profile holders the ability to edit their profiles, photos, and gives them direct access to users who opt in to being contacted directly by their matches.
Eventually the app will include candidates running for president, all the way down to city council, as well as key interest groups.
“The social benefit of this membership is that it could significantly lower the cost of voter acquisition for campaigns, (and thereby) decrease the influence of money on politics,” he said.
How It Works
The business makes money by selling user data, with user permission.
This data is sold to demographics like political candidates, campaign consultants, interest groups, other nonprofits and academics.
Crandall says VotingSmarter can offer “unbiased” info because the company did a comprehensive survey of major media and evaluated it.
It also reviewed several academic studies of the media.
Crandall said that his company found that “none of them were 100% neutral.”
“Corporate ownership, chasing viewers/clicks, and personal political preferences have all crept into every newsroom in our view,” he said. “We hope to demonstrate that there is an appetite for unbiased political info and put pressure on them to come back to neutral.”
Plans for the Future
Voting Smarter is working on building a “Money Matrix” tool, which will be an interactive visualization of dark money donations, that it hopes to integrate into the app before the November election.
Dark money refers to political spending by nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions.