Election 2016: The Social Sector and Democracy

SF Tech4Good: Democracy and Technology

With the 2016 Election around the corner, we are interested in examining the social sector’s role in American democracy. This week, we recap a recent SF Tech4Good panel discussion that examined the intersection between technology and democracy.


San Francisco’s meetup group, is the brainchild of NTEN’s 501 Tech Clubs, NetSquared, and TechSoup Global. The group convenes throughout the city to discuss how technology can be “leveraged for social impact.” Recently, SF Tech4Good held a meetup to explore what role data and tech are playing in the 2016 election.

The panel was comprised of tech and democracy leaders: Joy Bonaguro, chief data officer for the City of San Francisco; Dana Cleaver, founder at CEO of Vote.org; Carla Mays, CEO and founder of Mays Civic Innovation; Alex Kranenburg, co-founder of PoliTalk; and moderator Charles Belle, founder and CEO of StartUp Policy Lab.

Given the fact that the speakers work (in various capacities) in tech, I thought the panel would be focused on how much good tech has done for democracy, and especially the benefits it is providing for the current election cycle. Instead, the panelists only touched lightly on the benefits of using data to predict voting patterns, and contact undecided voters. Kranenburg extolled the benefits of using social media and reddit-like forums to engage millennials in the voting cycle.

But then the tone of the panel shifted. Mays, who has seemingly boundless energy and knowledge, spoke about her experience working on President Obama’s 2008 campaign. She said that the best work she did on the campaign trail was all offline--bringing lawn signs to folks living without an internet connection (much less a laptop) on the gulf coast; helping residents in rural areas register to vote; driving those targeted by voter suppression laws to polling places.

Cleaver quickly chimed in--she and her team at Vote.org have recently worked with venture capitalists (who, she explained, provide 60% of her organization’s funding; foundation provide 40% of their funding, in comparison) to figure out effective tech solutions to increase voter turnout, and fight voter suppression. Ultimately, she said, it’s the less-sexy, more pragmatic solutions that work best. For example: the PokemonGo app that gets you to your polling place is not nearly as effective as the SMS campaign Vote.org has organized to contact and engage unregistered and undecided voters. Tech frequently goes for the flashy solution, she explained. But when that fails (and it usually does, she said), it does much more harm than good (voter apathy, confusion, and lack of engagement). Tech needs to forget what’s trending and remember the problems that election cycles always face. Voter suppression, Cleaver said, isn’t something that Pokemon GO will ever solve. It’s the boots-on-the-ground work, the knocking on doors, the rides to the polling place for disenfranchised voters, that will make alter democracy for the better.

Ultimately, the panel on tech ended up reinforcing that the mechanics of democracy are, and should remain analogue. Because ultimately, it’s people who are voting, and it’s people who have to live with the election results.

Want more information about the social sector and democracy? Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is Foundation Center’s data visualization platform that captures the myriad democracy-related activities that foundations have supported from 2011 to present. Foundation Center’s new infographic series takes a deeper dive into the grants data made available through the platform to examine different areas of democracy funding, such as voter turnout.

Read Part I in this series, featuring Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight.

Read Part III in this series, featuring Virginia Mosqueda, senior program officer at The James Irvine Foundation.