Why We Invested: Democracy Works Labs
Voter participation in the US is critically low. When low voter engagement is sustained over a long period of time, it creates a power vacuum, leaving democracy vulnerable to non-representative groups like mega-donors, special interests, lobbyists, party bosses, and the ideological fringe. All of them have an easier time influencing or corrupting political institutions when turnout is low.
Civic technology can help tackle the crisis of low turnout, but there are a number of major hurdles innovators face. For example, many voter engagement tools experience a “boom and bust” cycle. While dozens of new tools are built each federal election, the best ones are often abandoned afterward when sustainable business models prove challenging and civic engagement dissipates. Democracy Works is a key institution in the civic technology field, tackling the crisis of low voter participation in the US by eliminating friction in the election process and helping people become active voters. It has developed a sustainable model to reach voters at massive scale through partnerships with colleges and universities, and with technology platforms such as Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. For example, in the US, over 5% of projected 2018 midterm voters (5.8 million) are signed up for election reminders through their TurboVote service. Beyond registering people to vote, the Voting Information Project (VIP) is a partnership of Democracy Works and state election officials to provide official information to voters about where to vote and what’s on their ballots. In 2016 alone, VIP had over 123 million impressions.
This is why earlier this year, Luminate supported the creation of Democracy Works Labs, an in-house innovation arm in service to the wider civic engagement sector. This is about more than innovation for innovation’s sake. It aims to address the issues by improving the quality of tools built during boom years, and ensuring the best of those ideas persist through the bust years so the sector is not always reinventing the wheel.
Our investment has already helped launch the Democracy Works API, which will ensure the 2020 voter engagement “boom cycle” gets built on a reliable foundation of election information. Election date and deadline data in the API is already being used by Facebook to build election reminders right into the Newsfeed, and Google just started integrating Democracy Works data directly into search results to answer questions about voting and registration. Democracy Works Labs also built their first new voter engagement tool, launching How to Vote, that immediately scaled through a promotion from Instagram.
We also see our investment as an opportunity to learn alongside Labs as they establish best practices for creating engagement tools with sustainable business models that reach tens of millions of voters. We are looking for partners in philanthropy to go on this journey with us by offering a $250,000 match in 2019.
There has never been a more critical time for philanthropic organizations to get involved in the civic empowerment sector. We hope that with this investment Democracy Works Labs will chart a path forward in ways that sustain innovation in the civic tech sector while pushing towards longer-lasting technology that increases voter participation for years to come.