Startups Venture

With The Midterms In Full Swing, Startups Tackle Elections And Voting

With the midterm elections just around the corner, we thought it’d be a great time to do a quick roundup of a few startups focused on the political process in one form or another.

Let’s jump right in.

BallotReady

Alex Niemczewski and Aviva Rosman founded BallotReady in 2014. Niemsczewski told me that the genesis of the Chicago-based company was born when she wanted to prepare herself for the midterm elections; however, she realized there were a lot of candidate names she didn’t recognize.

To solve that problem, she made a personal website to keep track of who was on the ballot. Eventually, she kept hearing people talk about not voting in certain races because they too did not feel informed enough about all the candidates.

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Niemsczewski then enlisted the help of Rosman, who had run for office herself, and approached the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

“We told them we wanted to create this voter’s guide and they gave us $400, which we were very happy about at the time,” she told Crunchbase News.

BallotReady started by making a guide for the Chicago election in 2015. By 2016, it had covered 12 states. Then in 2017, it covered all 50 states.

“It became a much bigger deal because there are more, larger races on the ballot and more attention paid,” she said.

So far, the pair have raised $2.4 million in funding and have 20 full-time employees (as well as more than 100 workers who are seasonal for the election cycle.) Its largest round closed in April and brought in $1.8 million from investors such as New Media Ventures and Wakestream Ventures, among others.

Aviva Rosman & Alex Niemczewski

“Most people don’t realize that in odd years, there are more candidates up for election,” Niemsczewski said. “So starting on Nov. 7, we’ll be researching those and also giving people information on what offices they can run for, such as eligibility requirements and salaries. There are so many uncontested races, especially at the local level, so people can use our info to figure out if they should run for office.”

Crowdpac

Crowdpac describes itself as “a partisan political crowdfunding startup using technology and data to help citizens engage in politics,” per its Crunchbase profile.

The San Francisco startup was formed in early 2014 by Adam Bonica, current CEO Gisel Kordestani, Paul Hilder, and Steve Hilton. (Hilton and Hilder have since left the company, and Hilton is now a Fox News Channel host).

Jesse Thomas, senior vice president for strategy and marketing, relates how Hilton got the idea for the company as a former senior advisor to former Prime Minister David Cameron in the United Kingdom.

Crowdpac CEO Gisel Kordestani

“He moved to California and was shocked at the impact of private, individual, and special interest money in the U.S., and he became interested in solving the problem of big money in American politics,” Thomas told Crunchbase News. “So he built a platform to empower everyday citizens[…] to keep people from getting discouraged and no longer wanting to participate in the political process.”

Co-founder Bonica pioneered a model for using campaign finance data to run a network analysis between donors and politicians. The same model was applied to helping people explore running for office and fundraising through the platform.

“We then had thousands of people creating campaigns, and start collecting pledges for a potential run for office,” Thomas said.

Today, he added, an “incredibly diverse slate of non-traditional candidates” use Crowdpac to power their campaigns – 41 percent are women; 20 percent are veterans; 38 percent are educators or professors, 12 percent are scientists, doctors or medical professionals and 29 percent are millennials and/or students.

Here are a few examples of congressional candidates who started fundraising early and explored a run for office with pledges on Crowdpac:

  • Lauren Underwood, IL-14 (campaign). A registered nurse with a pre-existing heart condition, Lauren decided to challenge her Representative, Republican Randy Hultgren (IL-14), after he broke his promise and voted for the GOP healthcare plan. With Crowdpac’s Start Running tool, she was able to collect financial pledges before declaring her candidacy. In a crowded seven-person primary, Lauren — as the only woman and the only person of color — took home 57% of the vote.
  • Lori Trahan, MA-03 (campaign). Lori Trahan is the former chief of staff to Rep. Marty Meehan and a CEO who has raised over $237K on Crowdpac. She did the majority of her fundraising on Crowdpac and is expected to win her race for MA-03.
  • Oklahoma teachers running for office. Crowdpac powered the wave of teachers running for office after the #RedForEd teacher strikes in Oklahoma. Cyndi Ralston, who hadn’t planned to announce her candidacy until she filed, set up a Crowdpac to build on the momentum and collect pledges of support after a video of her representative disrespecting teachers went viral. Renee Jerden, a choir teacher from Norman, raised her filing fee in just a few days. And Mary Boren, a school counselor who was fed up with the way teachers were being treated, exceeded her fundraising goal for State Senate in a matter of weeks.

ePluribus

While students at Stanford University, Aidan McCarty and his brother, Liam, founded ePluribus in 2016 in the middle of the presidential elections.

“We couldn’t believe how hard it was to get in touch with decision-makers in the government,” he told Crunchbase News. “We felt powerless in a system where our voices were not being heard and realized that our peers felt exactly the same.”

It took the pair—who hail from the Midwest—two years to build out a portal to help people build their “civic identity” and connect with their representatives and elected officials.

The company’s mission is to “fix politics” and to help Americans to be heard. Since ePluribus’s founding, the brothers have raised just over $930,000 through a combination of grants, crowdfunding, and equity financing.

Aidan & Liam McCarty

The brothers are starting their closed beta “and are rapidly growing a waitlist for the initial product release,” Aidan McCarty wrote via email.

“ePluribus will ultimately become the portal to your civic ID. When dealing with government, it is paramount that they know who you are,” he explained, pointing out as an example the FCC’s recent comment period on net neutrality.

An independent investigation found that a massive number of those comments were fake or duplicate, McCarty said.

“Real people with real concerns are being drowned out by bots, hackers, and astroturf firms that game the system for their own benefit,” he told Crunchbase News.

ePluribus’s goal is to attack the problem “head-on” by verifying civic information online and giving people complete control over their own data.

“This will help you break through to your elected officials like never before,” McCarty added. “We are bringing democracy into the 21st century and connecting people with their representatives is just the beginning.”

Voatz

Voatz was founded in 2015 by Carnegie Mellon grad Nimit S. Sawhney, who had grown up in India during a time of significant political strife. They were turned off of politics in general and moved to the US, ultimately pursuing careers in tech, according to Hilary Braseth – director of product design and communications.

But then they came up with the idea of people voting with their smartphones and created an app to allow for it. Today, Voatz is “a mobile election voting platform, secured via smart biometrics, real-time ID verification and the blockchain for irrefutability,” per its Crunchbase profile.

The pair unveiled the platform at SXSW in 2015, and won the Hackathon with their idea of “wanting to make voting as safe and available as possible.”

They’ve since run about 33 elections, mostly working with major state political parties in Massachusetts and a few other states, as well as in local towns, cities, and universities. It’s currently working on a federal pilot in West Virginia to allow people who are, for example, out of the country to vote from their smartphones.

There are limitations. The technology is currently only compatible with certain security specifications that its system requires, according to Braseth. For example, many Android devices do not have the necessary specifications to operate with Voatz’s platform.

The company also aims to leverage the biometrics capability of a smartphone—either touch ID or face ID. It also incorporates blockchain technology.

“Once a vote is cast, it is stored and logged on a blockchain network,” Braseth explains. “So there is an anonymized, untampered record of the vote.”

Voatz currently has 14 employees out of Boston and has so far raised $2.2 million from investors such as Oakhouse Partners and Medici Ventures.

The company has its fair share of critics, even being called “the Theranos of voting” by software developer Buzz Anderson.

But Braseth believes that’s to be expected.

“I think election security is one of the critical points of contention of our time,” she told Crunchbase News. “And necessarily so. No system is 100 percent secure, paper included, so we take the perspective that we can’t sit idly waiting for the system to become secure itself. We do believe there’s been very little innovation in this space in past few decades, especially keeping in mind demographic shifts over time. But there’s a responsible way to pursue a new technology and that’s with baby steps.”

Illustration Credit: Li Anne Dias