Voter, app that swipes right for civic engagement

Left. Left. Right. Right. Left. Yes, it’s an app – but no, it’s not Tinder. Meet Voter, the app intended to make politics engaging, informative, and accessible for every American with a smartphone and a few minutes to spare.

“It’s matchmaking for politics,” explained founder Hunter Scarborough, who came up for the idea for Voter when he was working 12- to 14-hour days in advertising and found himself immensely frustrated by the enormous time and effort barriers to staying civically informed. His situation was far from unique – just 5% of Americans under 30 say they’re able to “very closely” follow political news and events. Voter falls squarely in the sweet spot of those seeking something more comprehensive than soundbites but less convoluted than lengthy news articles. “With Voter, you answer a handful of questions, and the app tells you what parties and candidates you match with and why,” he said. “We’re trying to take something very complex and distill it into something accurate and useful without compromising the integrity.”

After just a few minutes with the app, which soft-launched on Independence Day, it’s easy to see why it’s billed as the Tinder for voting. Inspired by the enormously popular dating app, a right swipe means “yes,” heralding support for or agreement with an issue. If you want to learn more before you commit (what exactly are GMOs, anyway?), tap to be provided with more information, including pro and con bullet points. Scarborough has a background in graphic design, and it shows; the app’s crisp aesthetics make for a seamless visual experience, and the engaging, intuitive interface helps enable Voter, in its founder’s words, to “strike a balance between entertaining people and informing them.”

Under the hood, Voter feeds its proprietary algorithm with millions of data points meticulously gleaned from multiple open-source initiatives, like the Sunlight Foundation’s Capitol Words API, many of which didn’t exist just a few years ago. “The puzzle pieces were only recently ready to be put together,” said Scarborough. “We scrape the web to find voting records, speeches, any information that’s out there to hold politicians accountable to what they say and do.”

And Scarborough believes that the importance of examining actions, not just assurances, can’t be understated: “Politicians, so often, their actions don’t line up with what they said just a few days earlier. It’s mind-boggling, and most of the time it gets no press at all.” Voter corrects for the fact that most of us lack the superhuman stamina required to tease the signal from noise – and even if we could find the time, it’s increasingly unlikely we’d have the patience.

The average person’s attention span lasts for only eight seconds – that’s a 40% decline since researchers first started measuring the effects of the “digital revolution” in 2000. Though this time span is, in Scarborough’s own words, “hysterically low,” it’s also indisputably the reality of an increasingly mobile world – and politics, notoriously dense and slow-moving, simply isn’t built for it. Scarborough says that Voter’s crucial differentiator is “deliberately designing for that eight second attention span, and giving people a way to get a a lot of value in very little time.”

When asked whether Voter has received pushback from purists convinced that an app can’t substitute for a comprehensive political education, Scarborough said no, given that the alternative isn’t pretty: “Most people are just really excited to get the information through Voter, because they know realistically they won’t get the information any other way.” And uninformed voters will sit out elections – or worse, they won’t. “It’s insane how often you have people, who aren’t clear on the issues for whatever reason, voting directly against their own best interests. Voter is designed to help mitigate that.”

Scarborough admits, though, that while some issues are fairly cut-and-dry, others are more complex, requiring delicate wordsmithing in order to eliminate potential bias. In order to create and maintain maximum objectivity, Voter relies heavily on crowdsourcing. “In terms of tackling complex issues, we depend on our users as much as possible,” he said. “There’s an easy way to flag a question if people think there’s a problem – when we see something spiking, we’re going to address it right away.”

While the app currently focuses on presidential candidates, Voter’s post-2016 goals involve ubiquity at the local level, where voting rates are abysmal and participation skews towards older, more affluent, whiter constituencies. Eventually, Scarborough envisions Voter enabling a win-win feedback loop between constituents and politicians: Constituents know who they’re supporting, and politicians know what’s asked of them. He hopes to see the app serve as a referendum platform through which people can instantaneously communicate with their legislators simply by swiping left or right, and “to get to the point where any local politician, someone without a track record, would be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn’t enter their own info.”

In the meantime, Scarborough is particularly excited about the chance to provide younger Americans, who trend towards the “digital native” end of the spectrum, with a way to engage in politics that resonates with them. Millennials clearly value social impact – they volunteer and donate at significantly higher rates than past generations, and are explicit about their intentions to make a positive difference through their work. Yet when it comes to civic engagement, there’s a clear disconnect between their values and actions. Even in DC, where nearly 40% of us are employed by the government, we only managed a 31% millennial turnout for the 2014 midterm elections – and in comparison with the 21% millennial turnout rate for the country, that’s (frighteningly) exemplary.

“Young people are disenfranchised – there’s no doubt about that,” Scarborough says. “They haven’t necessarily seen value in engaging through traditional methods, and Voter provides real opportunity to appeal to millennials on their turf. It’s not a perfect solution yet, but I believe that if we can create a way for more people to learn and engage, we’re taking a major step in the right direction.”

 

By Christina Pappas

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