Among the most populous cities in the U.S., San Antonio has one of the lowest voter turnout in the country. Hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Bexar County don't show up to tell their representative government who they'd like to see in office, or what they think about about various issues. Less than one out of 10 will.
F. Joeseph Santori and Jeff Cardenas, co-founders of Austin-based technology company ThinkVoting, doesn't like those odds.
So when deciding where to launch the next iteration of The Voting App – a free, nonpartisan smart phone application that aggregates the "who, what, where, when, why, and how" of local elections for users based simply on their address – they needed to make a philosophical choice and business decision: Try out the app on a demographic with a slightly higher voter turnout like Dallas and/or Fort Worth (and essentially be able to test two cities at once), or try to "move the needle in San Antonio," Cardenas said.
The Voting App, offered in both English and Spanish, will officially launch in San Antonio this April with one month until the May 9 City Election during which citizens will vote for a mayor, Council members, in some instances school district representatives, Council member/mayor salaries, Edwards Aquifer protection, and more.
UPDATE: A press conference will be held on Thursday, April 9 at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall to officially launch the local version of the app.
"We're trying to make it easier for the average citizen to participate by pulling together information that's scattered all over the place," Cardenas said. "We want to use this technology that we’re using in every other aspect of our lives to make citizens more powerful.”
Once the app is downloaded, all residents have to do is enter in their address, and the software automatically finds which upcoming elections the user can vote. From there, users can access candidate profiles that include brief biographies, links to their campaign website, social media accounts, and – perhaps most importantly – their answers to questions asked by the The League of Women Voters (LWV) in its Voter's Guide on various local issues. Users can rate these answers using a "sentiment meter" with responses from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."
"The side-by-side assessment is really valuable here," Santori said as he swiped right and left on his iPhone between candidate answers provided for Austin's 2014 election. Once users rate enough questions/answers, they can be "matched" with a candidate.
"So it's kind of like a dating app, but for voting?" I asked.
They laughed; in a sense, that's an accurate analogy.
"This is what you're already doing in your head (when you try to select a candidate)," Cardenas said. "We're just creating tools for it."
Users can also create their own accounts on the app, which will store their preferences and guide them through future elections. Links to local, state, and federal resources on voting is provided as well as voter registration forms.
A push notification setting allows the app to send a reminder to the user when early voting starts, mid-way through early voting, a day before Election Day, and during Election Day. You can turn it off once you've voted, but its likely that many users will appreciate the "snooze" button arrangement.
The ThinkVoting team launched the first version of the app midway through November's early voting period. Thousands of Austinites downloaded the app in a matter of days, Cardenas said, through word-of-mouth, local news coverage, and the vast network of the LWV.
Eventually, ThinkVoting will add more content about elections from more sources, but for now, less is more as they see what works and what doesn't work.
"There's a balance, a lot of information is out there and we don't want to overload (voters) with too much data...that would make it difficult to navigate," Cardenas said. That, and it's critical that The Voting App stay completely nonpartisan. The more content sources, the more chances of candidates calling foul. The LWV gives every single candidate an equal opportunity to fill out its survey.
Each candidate will be verified and given access to their profiles to add their biography, photo, website, and social media links.
"Everyone gets the same amount of real estate," Cardenas said.
ThinkVoting has invited almost all candidates in every single race in San Anotnio to attend the launch event on Tuesday, March 31 at City Hall. They're also invited to unlock their profile on The Voting App. While ThinkVoting and a team from OCI Group, a "social purpose" consulting firm working with Cardenas and Santori, has been in touch with nearly all candidates, there are still a handful of candidates they'll need to contact, said OCI Managing Partner H. Analco González.
There are countless personal and political reasons why people don't vote, but one that should never stop someone is their level of intelligence. For many Americans, voting can be intimidating – especially when there's a ballot filled with people you've never heard of and items you've never considered. Why bother? You'd just be guessing anyway.
As much as we'd love to be the generation that "rocks the vote," Millennials are staying away from the polls just as much, if not more than, other age groups are. The biggest reason, according to a 2014 report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, they're "too busy."
The Voting App attempts to encourage the uninformed, busy voter (or non-voter, rather), by making background on the ballot easy to consume and letting them know where and when they can vote in a snap.
The LWV hopes to connect with an entirely different, younger audience through their partnership with ThinkVoting. And younger voters, they hope, will start connecting with their candidates – and show up to the polls.
"How can someone represent you if they don't know what you think?" Cardenas posed the question. "You need to force (candidates) to care. (The Voting App) is a tool to give you a voice and hold them accountable."
Cardenas and Santori realize that the app is not a silver bullet to increase voter turnout. First of all, not all adults have a smart phone – more like 58%, according to the Pew Research Center. And according to Gallup, smart phones are increasingly becoming the primary source of Internet for low-income families: 45% of people with an annual income of less than $30,000 use a smart phone as their primary internet device.
So what's in it for ThinkVoting? How could a free, nonpartisan voting app possibly make money?
"By disrupting the public polling system," Cardenas said. Eventually, ThinkVoting plans to rollout nationally and charge a fee for organizations to access its analytical data (though voter names will likely be assigned numbers for anonymity/privacy reasons) – what Cardenas hopes will be a valuable tool for campaigns, political analysts, and journalists.
The Voting App would remove a lot of the overhead associated with traditional polling companies – which utilize call centers and physical mail-outs – and basically allows voter information to come to them instead of having to seek out individuals to poll.
To convince Santori and Cardenas to seriously consider launching in San Antonio, González said the OCI Group had to make a strong case.
"We pitched them on San Antonio," he said. "And much of that was proving that there is a culture of engagement here, but that it hasn't been realized yet."
Part of that "collateral" was a Rivard Report article, he said, referencing Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard's story about early voting published in February during the run-up to the state legislature elections. ThinkVoting uses a quote in their marketing material:
"Low voter turnout confounds me, as it does many. I am convinced that the only way to make democracy more participatory, like it or not, is to give people a smart phone app and let them register and then vote at a time and place of their own choosing," stated Rivard.
The technology – and security – to facilitate this kind of voting app may be ahead of us, but for now, citizens can, at least, no longer say they don't know where to start on Election Day.
*Featured/top image: The Voting App. Image courtesy of ThinkVoting.