Seth Flaxman is strengthening the fabric of American democracy by increasing electoral and citizen participation on all fronts.
The New Idea
Seth founded Democracy Works to modernize the infrastructure of our democracy. As he puts it, nearly every activity we participate in—from applying to colleges to paying taxes to renting movies—has been at least facilitated by technology and the web. And yet how we vote has remained essentially the same since the 18th century. Democracy Works was born out of a simple insight: strengthening democracy begins with strengthening citizen participation and engagement, and that requires modernizing voting for the way we live. His idea is to integrate democracy more closely with our 21st century lives beginning with demystifying and simplifying the process of participating in democracy itself.
At the core of Democracy Works is a digital platform—TurboVote. org—that aims to simplify voting for every voter in the US. The initial focus is on voter registration and vote-by-mail. Democracy Works makes both as easy as renting a Netflix DVD, with the goal of keeping Americans registered and making sure they don’t miss any elections, from school board to presidential. The service can mail completed registration or vote by mail applications along with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes, send text and email reminders for all related deadlines or simply remind someone of their election calendar if they’re already registered and want to vote in person. Already Democracy Works has piloted the platform at more than 50 colleges and universities with first-time voters, and will begin pitching as a back-end digital infrastructure for local election boards across the United States.
Though the idea is built around a web platform and digital tools, the team is not wedded to one particular technology or approach. As it evolves, the platform could do anything from delivering information to helping citizens connect with elected officials. The larger idea is that our democracy is ripe for digital disruption, and that rather than waiting for our political system to change from the inside, we can use that disruption to begin changing it ourselves.
American democracy suffers from one of the lowest participation rates in the world. Only roughly half of all voting-age citizens vote in US presidential elections. In mid-term elections, which often elect governors, Congressional Representatives, and Senators, approximately 40 percent of people vote. Many local elections, which determine critical issues like education, infrastructure and public safety, see fewer than one in ten people participate.
Low participation means our democracy is less healthy and less responsive than it should be. For one, it becomes harder for common interests to compete with special interests who increasingly dominate the political conversation. And with participation this low, it’s often the most partisan citizens who come out to vote, resulting in more partisan representatives being elected who must cater to ideologues rather than compromise. By many accounts, these two problems alone—special interest influence and partisan gridlock—account for much of what is broken in our democracy.
Increasing participation is not the only answer, but it’s a foundational step. Much of the reason participation is so low is that the voting process and system that was designed centuries ago no longer fits with our modern lives. Indeed, Election Day is on a Tuesday because in the 1700s, Sunday was for church and Wednesday was market day. But the difficulty on voting day itself—highlighted in our most recent election by hours of waiting in line, 12-page ballots and innumerable levels of voter confusion—is only part of the problem. Even the process of registering to vote can be maddeningly unclear and deters many from becoming eligible to vote.
Until now, despite widespread recognition that our voting system is antiquated and inefficient, few have offered a realistic way forward. Even fewer have asked what a voting system would look like if it were built from the user’s perspective and then begun building that system.
The Democracy Works strategy is essentially comprised of three steps: build and refine a better system for democratic participation (and voting in particular), pilot that system in key markets to prove it works and to generate early support, and then sell it to local governments as a way to help them do their jobs better. Their full market is the entire voting population of the US. Getting there will happen incrementally, though the aim is to build toward a tipping point where demand for the web-based infrastructure will eventually drive growth.
How rapidly Democracy Works reaches that tipping point depends in large part on the quality of the product itself. The problem Democracy Works is addressing is a problem of broken process—therefore, its solution has to be easily recognized as a significant process improvement. This is why each element of the design and functionality of Democracy Works was built around the question, ‘what would be easiest for the voter?’—a radical departure from the status quo. Democracy Works recruited some of the finest web developers in their field to design a user interface that was best-in-class (the quality of which was confirmed when Google featured a link to Democracy Works on its homepage during Voter Registration Week in September of 2012—a strong endorsement).
TurboVote.org currently focuses on improving two pieces of the voting process: first, registering to vote (and staying registered even if you move), and second, casting your ballot. Until voting itself is moved entirely online (which may never happen), Democracy Works operates with the mail-in, vote-from-home ballot system that’s already in place in all US states—simplifying it by aggregating all the moving pieces into one place. Before Democracy Works, people were required to complete an online scavenger hunt across multiple websites: to a state site to download a ballot request form, to an election board site to figure out where to send it, and to a different state site to determine the deadline; not to mention needing a printer (with ink), envelope, and stamp. Now users can register with just a few clicks, get the correct registration applications mailed to them, already filled out, along with an addressed, stamped envelope. Then their local voting authority will start mailing them ballots. And if you choose, Democracy Works can remind you of upcoming elections by email or text message—a service that’s especially helpful for less publicized local votes such as school board elections.
Increasing the ease with which voters can register and vote by mail is significant for voter participation numbers. For example, when Oregon—one of the states with the most streamlined registration and vote-by-mail processes—began holding all its elections by mail (the only state to do so), almost half of those who had abstained from voting in the 1992 to 1996 elections cast ballots in the 1996 to 2000 elections and turnout increased by 10 percentage points. Over the past decade, 30 states have changed their laws to allow any voter to vote by mail in any election without needing an excuse—that’s 173 million Americans—so the conditions for Democracy Works are more favorable than ever. Voting by mail has an additional advantage: it gives people more time to research the issues and make informed voting decisions than they would going into the voting both on Election Day.
To test and refine the Democracy Works platform, Seth and his team established partnerships with universities across the country. This was strategic in several senses. For one, universities already had an incentive (and in some cases a mandate) to register new voters—part of the long history of civic engagement and learning in American higher education. But most university-run voter registration drives are either ineffective or extremely time intensive. So Democracy Works began offering its platform for a fee to dozens of universities. This not only helped Democracy Works sign up its 188,000th voter this fall, but it generated revenues that helped the organization grow. In addition, by building a base of young voters accustomed to an easier voting process, Democracy Works is raising expectations for how our democracy should work. Wherever these college students move after college, they will represent part of a growing constituency demanding that local government modernize elections. Finally—and importantly for Democracy Works’ next stage of its strategy—the more that universities sign up large numbers of new voters and make voting easier, the more that surrounding counties and towns will take note and want to do the same.
To reach national scale, Democracy Works must be adopted by government—and that is the organization’s ultimate aim. Elections in the US are controlled at the local level through 13,000 election offices, which means they are often under-resourced, under-staffed, and mostly untouched by the digital revolution. However, the advantage of this decentralized structure is that change does not require an act of Congress—it can start with a handful of election officials who see the value in making democracy more accessible. This is one of the advantages of American federalism: local experimentation leads to replication. In 2013, Seth and the team pitched the Democracy Works platform to election boards around the US. The strategy changed from one that solely faces voters to one that also serves election administrators.
The government incentive is straightforward. Economically, Democracy Works can help election administrators save time and money—both by making it easier to communicate with voters, reducing paperwork and administrative costs, and with voting by mail, reducing the number of paid poll workers on Election Day (usually the biggest cost for election administrators). Finally, many election workers are motivated by a principled commitment to improving democracy through stronger citizen engagement.
Initially, local government offices will pay Democracy Works to integrate its web infrastructure with their own—essentially localizing the service based on local needs. However, the plan is to expand services to eventually allow election offices the ability to accept ballot requests online, without a paper form. The TurboVote system is already capable of processing ballot request information securely, while few election offices can afford to build and secure a system to handle such requests. A pilot with six local election offices is kicking off this year.
Seth and his team are also beginning to think about how Democracy Works could be helpful in other ways—for example as an educational tool that can email ballot previews to voters or to provide more in-depth information about candidates or specific ballot measures. Over the long-term, as they modernize voting and make it easier, they will look to embed their services into existing institutions and products, from health care clinics to tax filing tools. This is another big advantage of bringing democracy into the digital age.
Through universities, partner organizations and local governments, Democracy Works reached over five million voters in 2014 and hopes to reach over 100 million in 2016. The operating budget for Democracy Works was $2.5 million in 2014 and the organization is now raising a $10 million round of philanthropic investment in order to scale their services to all of the 219 million Americans eligible to vote. Democracy Works’ staff is now at 21 with plans for rapid growth as local outreach begins across the country.
Seth grew up thinking that he would become a scientist and entrepreneur. As early as third grade he remembers reading everything he could about Thomas Edison. In high school, he spent two summers working with a Columbia professor at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and fell in love with technology. She helped get him into Columbia in order to study science, but it wasn’t long until he found a different calling: figuring out a way to fix our broken democracy and our dysfunctional government.
Seth spent most of college as an activist. As president of the College Democrats he founded the Activist Council, which still annually mobilizes hundreds of students to participate in Get Out The Vote efforts. The following year, as student body president, he successfully lobbied the administration to make Columbia tuition-free for students from families making under $50,000 a year.
It was in college where Seth learned the value of having a great team and how to lead one. He also learned that activism is exhausting. After college, he looked for a job where he could read books, attend lectures, and figure out how he would make his difference in the world, and he ended up as a Research Associate for Jagdish Bhagwati at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. While there, he attended a few lectures on technological change and ultimately asked himself two questions: Why was the Internet revolutionizing everything except government, and what could he do about it?
Finding the answers to those questions is what drove him to get a master’s degree in Public Policy at the Kennedy School. And they were the questions he had floating around in his head when after a few months in Cambridge he realized that he had missed three local elections (a low-level personal crisis for someone obsessed with civic engagement).
Over the next weeks, in January of 2010, Seth realized that solving his problem was not high-energy particle physics—that it was possible to build something immediately that could make a tremendous difference for how democracy works. That month, he got to work bringing the idea to life—building a team, finding advisors and board members, and eventually piloting Democracy Works at Boston University and Harvard. His early success—and the enthusiasm of others—has bolstered his confidence and commitment to keep thinking big.