1) What you can directly do to help Biden and blue candidates.
2) What we’ve been doing to help save our democracy.
It would be an understatement to say that a lot of stuff is pretty f’d up right now. I’ll spare you an itemized list. Between your doomscrolling on Twitter and the real-time shitshow you’re living through, you already know.
The good news is that many of today’s messes can be fixed by bringing real leaders back into government. We can take back the White House, hold onto the House, take a real shot at winning the Senate, and flip some state legislatures. However, if we don’t show up, this could be the last free election of our lifetimes. Not kidding. The last four years have revealed how fragile our democracy really is. It’s now or never.
The truth is, Crystal and I hate politics. However, we are passionate about our responsibility to fight for justice and fairness, particularly on behalf of those who don’t have a voice nor the resources to make change happen. We were deeply involved in the ‘08 and ‘12 Obama campaigns, but since early 2016 protecting democracy has been a year-round job. (And because we work from home and she overhears all of our calls, it’s why our 4-year-old will explain to you the madness of this presidency.)
Working together with our partner Clay Dumas, who joined our team after four years in the Obama White House, we’ve invested millions of dollars and countless hours helping build organizations and companies that we think have the best shot at giving blue candidates an edge in a game that is rigged against them. More on that below. But first…
What can you do to directly impact the outcome of this election up and down the ballot?
1) Head to Vote Save America: Go right now. Click that link, double-check that you’re registered, and put in your request to vote from home. Now, help your family and friends do it too. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, and you can’t win an election if you don’t show the F up. While you’re there, sign up for a volunteer shift too.
2) Donate Directly to Biden: If you do nothing else, give a few bucks to the Biden/Harris campaign. We don’t say this lightly. We work closely with the campaign and ensure they are using the best tools and the most effective approaches to putting your money to work. If you want to defeat Trump, your money will actually go further with the Biden campaign than anywhere else right now. One main reason why: They have access to cheaper rates on TV advertising and possess more complete online data than anyone else. Since the next two months will be dominated by advertising on TV and online in swing states, there is simply nowhere else to donate with more impact. Click the link and give what you can. We’ve worked hard to make sure everything you give will go a long way.
3) Swing the Senate: As important as the White House is, save some of your dollars for the Senate. If Joe Biden wins, his ability to pass any legislation at all — from climate to voting rights — will rest entirely on whether Democrats wrest the gavel from Mitch McConnell’s little turtle claws. If Biden loses, a possibility we don’t like to imagine, but one we have to consider, a Democratic-controlled Senate is the only thing standing between us and multi-generational Republican control of the Supreme Court. The good news? We have inspiring candidates within striking distance to win seats in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. We need to pick up at least four to flip the chamber. We’ve set it up so your donation on this page will be evenly split 12 ways across the Senate seats where we have the best odds.
4) Defend the House: There are many potentially competitive House races, but we’ve directed our contributions to the 24 races most at risk if the national environment tilts back significantly toward Trumplicans. In other words, if the race fundamentally breaks against us for some unforeseen reason, these are the seats that give Republicans a path back to a House Majority (which are different from the seats you might target if you wanted to maximize the Democratic majority). Do we wish House Democrats had been more aggressive in impeaching Trump and investigating the constantly-expanding list of corrupt behavior? Absolutely. But imagine what happens if the gavel ends up in the other side’s hands. Click here to donate and it will divide your contribution equally among those 24 candidates.”
5) Flip state houses: Not only is our very democracy on the line in the presidential election, but there are dozens of state legislative races that will determine the composition of Congress for the coming decade. Every ten years, after the Census is taken, state legislatures redraw the boundaries of congressional districts. Republicans have a long track record of drawing those boundaries in ways that minimize Democratic representation in the House of Representatives. When Democrats win, we tend to appoint non-partisan committees to draw those boundaries fairly and democratically. These campaigns have an outsized impact on our nation’s laws. Swing Left has made it easy to support the most winnable races in just one click. Make it happen right here.
6) Volunteer your time: Money is helpful, but it only goes so far. From the White House to the state house, campaigns need your time too. Especially in a year when people aren’t exactly clamoring to go out knocking on strangers’ doors, campaigns are in need of volunteers to lend a hand in other ways. Thankfully, the team at Swing Left has taken all the guesswork out of figuring out where to volunteer. Click here, let them know your zip code, and they’ll serve up the very best ways for you to invest your time and organize online.
7) Sign up to work the polls: Experts are projecting a nationwide shortage of 460,000 poll workers. That’s about half of what is needed. Poll workers tend to be from older demographics who are disproportionately at risk from COVID. Without them this year, the unavoidable outcome is the closure of polling centers, longer lines, and heightened confusion during the highest-stakes Election Day since 1860. So please consider doing your democratic duty and working the polls. Power the Polls has done all the research for you, so all you need to do is sign up here.
**Now, before moving on, stop, go back, and take some action above. We are in the midst of a crisis and way too many people are standing on the sidelines. Don’t feel that same 2016 regret for not doing enough. Instead, be proud of how you helped this time. Get involved now.
What we’ve been doing to help save our democracy
Year-round, Crystal and I, together with our partner Clay Dumas, have been actively funding teams that are rebuilding the tech and organizing infrastructure for the Democratic Party and progressive causes.
In the wake of the 2016 election, one of the things that stung is that so much of the money raised had been squandered on advertising that didn’t change anyone’s mind, on a data platform that fell painfully short, and on technology that would never again see the light of day after the election. It drove home that political campaigns are like startups with a 100% burn rate. It doesn’t take a very experienced investor to tell you that if all your technology, data, and know-how are held in startups that burn out after a year or two, you’re never going to get very far.
So instead, we backed scalable, tech-driven platforms and organizations that helped thousands of campaigns in 2018, used what they learned to help thousands more campaigns in 2020, and that will continue to improve, cycle after cycle. In each case, we ask simple questions: For every additional dollar that goes in, are we getting more efficient at winning votes? Are we developing more effective ways to register people to vote? Are we increasing how many conversations volunteers have for every hour they spend canvassing? Are we running more persuasive ads?
Tech isn’t a panacea, but what Crystal and I knew from investing in startups is that as technology scales, it produces data that refines our understanding of which metrics matter. Over time, this drives dollars toward the tools and organizations that provide the greatest value. This helps campaigns make more informed decisions about whether to spend resources on tools like Mobilize and Reach, or on consultants and mail marketers. Our bet is that, over time, startups inventing new models and building scalable technology will have higher ROI than throwing money at Super PACs and consultants.
After carefully studying the fatal mistakes of 2016 and deploying millions of dollars in 2018 to correct course, we learned a lot. Like many startups, some of the companies we backed early on just didn’t have the chops and flamed out. Others proved effective, but spent too much money to achieve the result. Overall though, companies and orgs that we backed turned out to have incredibly outsized impacts on the race with great ROI per voter.
Armed with that insight, below are the teams we’ve backed for the 2020 election. These investments are focused on: 1) rethinking person-to-person organizing, 2) making it easier to act on the data that informs every decision from which ads to run to which voters to target, 3) upgrading our voting systems so casting a ballot is easier and more secure, and 4) building the bench of Democratic candidates and the tools they use to win elections.
If you’re interested in supporting any of these teams through investments or by working with them, please get in touch.
RETHINKING PERSON-TO-PERSON ORGANIZING
Enabling campaigns to recruit their supporters
For many campaigns, the primary way to recruit volunteers used to be pasting the office address on their website and hoping people showed up. Mobilize makes it dead simple for hundreds of campaigns and organizations to recruit volunteers and drive them to causes that matter. Today it is one of the most widely used tools in Democratic politics.
In 2020, Mobilize is powering the largest digital mobilization in American electoral history, driving millions of additional volunteers to Joe Biden’s campaign and fueling volunteer recruitment from organizations like Swing Left to Color of Change. Most critically, as a rapidly growing business, Mobilize has built a platform that will endure for many cycles rather than fade away after the next election.
Canvass anyone without ever stepping into a campaign office
On campaigns, one of the most important metrics is “doors knocked” or “contact attempts.” To maximize “attempts,” campaigns will send volunteers out to knock on doors even if it’s Tuesday afternoon and they know no one’s home. Common sense might tell you to head to the mall or a college campus, or simply check in with people you already know. Reach allows you to do that, and connects the outcome of those conversations to the campaign’s database.
The Reach founders got started during AOC’s 2018 primary, questioning why a volunteer should have to pick up a clipboard from a campaign office, fill out confusing forms with pen and paper, and drop it back off with campaign staffers where all their work might sit around for a few days before anyone had the time to enter data by hand. Reach built web and mobile apps that provide real-time connections to the voter file so you can “canvass” your friends, family, or a stranger you meet on a subway platform, without needing to go to a campaign office to pick up a clipboard and paper. The data is then immediately available to the campaign, helping to expand and refine volunteer, get-out-the-vote, and fundraising models. With doorknocking obsolete in the time of COVID, Reach’s technology has become a foundational part of over 400 campaigns across the country, who love it because contact rates are 10x higher than when you text strangers.
Connecting you with the top ways to elect Democrats
Swing Left is a national grassroots organization of volunteers working to elect Democratic candidates in the most critical races around the country, from the White House to the state house. When they launched in the leadup to the 2018 midterms, their early insight was to channel people’s energy and dollars into the swing districts closest to where they live. This mission has evolved to help people find the races where they can have the greatest marginal effect on electing Democrats, whether they’re looking to volunteer or donate.
Swing Left has made political action simple, local, and high-impact, getting hundreds of thousands of people involved for the first time and raising millions of dollars directly for Democratic candidates. We help fund the overhead so that money you give to Swing Left can have more impact in the field.
Persuade friends to vote
Volunteering on campaigns used to mean knocking on doors or making phone calls. Those weren’t always impactful to begin with, and post-Covid going door-to-door and robo-calling strangers is even less viable. Team, built by The Tuesday Company, gives us a new way to volunteer. It draws on social media to help friends persuade friends to vote. In campaign lingo this is called ‘relational organizing.’ All that means is drawing on existing relationships instead of talking to strangers.
An early focus on messaging, together with the founders’ experience as field organizers, has resulted in one of the best campaign tools to emerge since 2016. Team has been used by everyone from presidential primary campaigns to environmental non-profits to help campaigns reach new voters directly through trusted intermediaries, instead of spammy emails and solicitations from strangers.
MAKING DATA ACTIONABLE
Measure content and predict opinion change
One of the biggest missteps of 2016 was failing to measure the backlash of certain messages. What were thought to be persuasive ads only served to alienate certain critical voting segments. Swayable’s mission is to prevent that from ever happening again. Their platform allows campaigns to rapidly measure content with carefully sampled audiences online to make determinations about what to show and to whom.
This is a big deal because ads are usually a campaign’s single largest line item. Swayable’s platform allows campaigns to increase their ROI on that spend by as much as 10x. What really makes it work is that it moves fast enough that customers can test every single ad they’re running. In 24 hours Swayable can show a piece of content to thousands of voters and offer fresh insights. That sort of testing previously would have required six weeks of brand lift tests on paid ads.
Make presidential-grade analytics available to all Democrats
Deck is a campaign operating system for races from Congress down to the state level. It combines powerful data modeling and targeting tools with best practices in campaign strategy — e.g. how much to spend on ads versus volunteer recruiting — into a single product to give candidates with minimal teams a data-driven strategy right out of the box. The result is to equip campaigns that don’t even have staff with access to presidential campaign caliber analytics and marketing strategies.
This Spring, Deck partnered with the DNC and is now available to any blue candidate running for state office across the country. Their data is also feeding into other platforms, such as Swing Left’s. In time, this could become one of the most significant advantages of down ballot Democratic candidates.
Upgrading the data of state Democratic parties
A perennial challenge for Democrats is the inconsistent quality of data from the state parties who often lack the resources needed to maintain and improve their voter files. Stac Labs has gone a long way toward solving this problem by upgrading the technical and personnel resources working on state data. They hire regional data and technology teams with tech industry-level experience to build scalable tech solutions for state parties, negotiate cheaper contracts to tools, and implement best practices in the management of their voter files.
Not only does this allow states to offer the data to more candidates running for office, but it means that insights can more easily bubble up from the local to statewide and even national campaigns. They are now working with 27 states around the country, including all the battlegrounds.
SECURING THE VOTE
Easy, cheap, and secure voting systems (501c3)
VotingWorks is a non-profit startup and YCombinator alum that builds cheap, secure, easy-to-use voting machines and software. Their team of voting tech and cryptography experts brings together the known best practices — simple UX, paper ballots, and off-the-shelf hardware — into a simple system that is >60% cheaper than current market leaders. During COVID, they expanded their system to include a plug-and-play solution for accessible vote-from-home, available to states with limited experience administering elections by mail. Their soup-to-nuts voting system has the potential to quickly scale across the country in the election cycles to come and restore faith in the physical expression of democracy.
Most immediately, their biggest impact in 2020 may be through risk-limiting audits, the surest safeguard there is against hacked or faulty voting systems. VotingWorks is providing this software service for free to states — including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia — who want to assure the accuracy of election results without needing to recount each ballot by hand. VotingWorks is non-partisan and the money you contribute to their work is tax-deductible.
Make voting easy (501c3)
DemocracyWorks is a team of software developers and civic organizers working to upgrade the infrastructure of American democracy. Their best-known product is TurboVote, an online service that helps anyone in America register and vote in national, state, and local elections. If you’re registering to vote on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, or Google, it’s being powered by TurboVote.
DemocracyWorks is also the team behind the Voting Information Project, a data collaboration with Google and the states that makes it possible to search online for your polling place and ballot drop boxes. And, critically in 2020, they’ve expanded Ballot Scout, a digital tool that helps local election administrators keep track of millions of mail and absentee ballots so that they make it to voters in the first place and get counted in the final tallies. Once again, this is a non-partisan organization and you can donate money and receive a tax deduction for doing so.
Defending the right to vote
Fair Fight is partnering with Democratic state parties and others who believe in protecting the right to vote and who work to counter voter suppression efforts around the country. Attempts to discourage and disenfranchise voters take many forms, from administrative barriers in registering to reducing the number of polling locations, from voter ID laws to inventing pretexts to exclude ballots from the final count. These days, it’s whatever it takes for Republicans to prevent young and diverse citizens from voting. This is more than just a matter of partisan warfare. Who can vote gets at the heart of our democratic system: whether people have faith that our government represents the will of the people.
Fair Fight was founded by Stacey Abrams after her loss by 55,000 votes in the Georgia gubernatorial election where 1.6 million voters were purged from the rolls, hundreds of thousands of votes went missing, 53,000 new voter registrations were never approved, and 30,000 people were forced to vote on provisional ballots, most of which were never counted. Enough is enough.
Voting Rights Lab
Securing voting rights state by state (501c3)
The Voting Rights Lab works to pass laws at the state level to secure and expand the right to vote. They bring together experts from policy, legislative, and civil rights communities to craft strategies tailored to particular states.
Their efforts span all 50 state capitals, which is where the power to administer elections ultimately resides. This wide reach also speaks to the inherent challenge of defending the right to vote: it is under attack almost everywhere almost all the time. Efforts to disenfranchise voters also take many different forms. This gave rise to the State Voting Rights Tracker, an influential dashboard that tracks changes in voting laws across states throughout the year.
BUILDING THE BENCH
Higher Ground Labs
YCombinator for Democracy
Following the 2016 election, the ecosystem around progressive campaign tech was broken. Rather than build tech and data infrastructure from the bottom up, progressives relied on presidential campaigns to build their own tools. Building tech in-house, with too few resources and too little time, had predictable results. Higher Ground Labs set out to fix this, by incubating and accelerating the deployment of startups that help progressives reach voters, organize volunteers, and manage campaigns, cycle after cycle.
HGL is both a magnet for the most talented startups and a trusted brand among the old-school party committees. That means the best new tech is coming out of HGL and immediately getting the biggest Democratic orgs signed on as customers. In 2020, products that came out of HGL are serving campaigns at every level, from state house races to the Biden Campaign, and growing significantly year-over-year. No one deserves more credit for fixing Democratic campaign tech than this team.
Run for Something
Get Inspiring Candidates to Run
In 2016, 40% of state legislative races went uncontested. Run for Something is fixing that by recruiting young and diverse candidates to run in each and every down-ballot race across the country, from school board to state senate. In addition to recruiting people to run, they help them win. They’re on the lookout for candidates who are progressive, rooted in their communities, and focused on making face-to-face contact with voters — the scientifically-proven most effective way to increase voter turnout.
Of the candidates RFS endorsed in 2018 — with money, advice, and coaching — 208 won their races. That represented a 40% win rate (versus about 10% for typical first time candidates). Of the winners, 55% are women and 50% are people of color. Notably, 39 of those victories flipped legislative seats.
If any or all of these intrigue you, click on their links and dive in. You can donate to the non-profits directly, and if you would like to invest in the other companies and orgs, just let us know.
Whatever you do, it’s put up or shut up time. America itself is on the ballot. Please, do your part.