Entrepreneurs look to phone apps to entice young 2016 voters

Posted at 11:08 AM, Aug 19, 2015

If you can swipe right, you can play a part in the election— at least that’s the logic behind a new phone app aiming to get young voters engaged with the political process.  

Started by a millennial for millennials, the app Voter hopes to “take the friction out of voting.” Using a Tinder-esque model, it matches you with your best candidate instead of a date.

“I wanted it to be extremely fast-paced, basically only demanding a few seconds to a couple minutes of someone’s time to actually get valuable information,” founder Hunter Scarborough said. “In anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute or two, you can get useful or accurate information to make a decision in an election.”

Users start by answering a few policy questions. Do you believe marijuana should be legalized? Swipe right for yes. Should Obamacare be repealed? Swipe left for no. Eight questions later and TA-DA, you have a presidential candidate match!

Voter targets users just like Scarborough—the 18 to 29-year-old crowd. It’s a constituency he says just doesn’t have the attention span to do a deep dive into which politician or candidate they should support. And he says, failing to support a candidate results in less political engagement.

Scarborough hopes the app, currently in beta-testing, can fill in the gap by doing the heavy lifting with a technology most millennials can’t live without—their smart phones.

“Especially for millennials and younger generations—politics is something to be avoided, it’s anything but interesting,” Scarborough said. “We wanted to take this really important but complex issue and distill it down into something that can fit into our fast-paced and tech-involved lives.”

Voter is among a handful of entrepreneur-backed apps hoping to tap into the relatively young, politically distant voter market in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Brigade, a social network for the politically minded, is another. With former Facebook President Sean Parker as its Executive Chairman, Brigade is hoping to jump-start the political conversation among millennials by taking a cue from Parker’s former colleagues at the world’s largest social network.

“We wanted to build something that had mass appeal—that had relevance and offered people value outside of the very sharp, heavy interaction around an election for example—and we also wanted to start with relationships,” said James Windon, Brigade’s co-founder and President. “One of the things that we believe to date—is that the solution to re-invigorating the citizenry involves re-combining people’s civic lives through their social lives.”

Brigade users answer a scrolling list of questions about their beliefs before unlocking the app’s social platform component. Users are assigned a rank based on their answers and can compare themselves against others on the network. Brigade also allows users to start conversations on topics based on local or national topics of interest.

The idea is that by getting people to talk about important issues, the tool can open the door to more political engagement and create a safe venue to talk about politics.

“At its core, what Brigade hopes to do is provide a space for individuals to express their beliefs, find people who think like them, and organize and take action on policies and the elections that affect their lives,” Windon said.

It’s as community-centric as it gets, and while Windon says the first goal of the app is just to get people more interested in policy and causes, ultimately, he hopes it will be a “foundational piece of technology that can one day enable people to vote more regularly and for more offices.”

Whether these apps will be able to draw enough young voters to them or actually spur millennials to actually vote remains to be seen. Millennials like Voter founder Scarborough are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to their generations’ interest in politics.

People between the ages of 18 and 29 consistently vote the least of any other eligible group. Census data from 2012 found only 45 percent of people in that age range voted during the election, compared to 72 percent of Americans 65 and older.

And the number of young voters who turned out in 2012 was about 2,000 fewer than the previous presidential election, with only 20,539 total people voting. A Pew Research study from June of this year found that the millennial generation is the least interested in politics, with 26 percent ranking government and politics among their top three interests.

However, some argue things could be different if millennials’ apathy could be channeled into engagement. A 2014 study sponsored by the Case Foundation found that millennials are more willing to invest in causes they are passionate about where they can make a difference.

“The ability to put [political dialogue] on a separate [app], is a little more challenging I think—because it requires a sense of activation energy to say, ‘Ok, I’m really going to launch into politics,” David Burstein, author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World, said. “It’s one thing to tweet out ‘Oh my god these ridiculous politicians, enough already.” Or,  ‘I’m so happy the Supreme Court voted this way.” But the desire to want to go somewhere else and do that requires you to be really passionate.”

What dissuades millennials from using that sympathy and passion in politics, says Burstein is a high level of frustration, depression and disconnection.

“We’re not speaking to things that young people care about in the national dialogue and debate—candidates are not making any concerted effort to try to connect with young voters.” Burstein said. “It’s a vicious cycle, candidates believe young people won’t turn out because they haven’t turned out in the past. And [young people] haven’t turned out in the past because no candidate has invested resources to try to get them to turn out to vote.”

So if the political dialogue coming from candidates isn’t attracting young voters the question remains whether apps can do the job instead.