Democracy Works: Helping democracy thrive in a mobile-dominated world with SMS

June 29, 2017
Written by
Jacob Talbot
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

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Turnout in American elections is uniformly low. In presidential election years, roughly 60% of Americans vote, but that number falls to 40% in midterm elections and the low teens for municipal races. Although voter apathy is a factor, the primary culprit is the voting process itself. The majority of non-voters find it complicated and confusing.

Democracy Works is fighting to shake up the status quo with TurboVote. The online app helps Americans register to vote, track local and national elections, submit absentee ballots, and learn other critical election information. The organization’s goal: 80% turnout in U.S. federal elections by 2024.

An key to reaching such an ambitious goal? Engage voters where they are.

Engaging voters with every text

When Democracy Works first built TurboVote in 2010, mobile phones accounted for only 15% of the app’s traffic, with desktops accounting for the rest. At the time, it made sense to engage voters primarily by email. “We set up text message reminders using Twilio, but only as a supplement to our email program,” says Kathryn Peters, co-founder and COO of Democracy Works. A single in-house developer built the texting platform using Twilio Programmable SMS.

But by late 2016, the numbers had flipped, and now nearly 70% of the organization’s traffic comes from mobile devices. So Democracy Works made engaging by text a priority.

“It’s still really easy when doing outreach-based projects to believe that email is the place to start,” Kathryn explains. “But we keep finding that the people who are talking to us on SMS are talking to us more. We’re seeing more people interact with the texts we send, and more people wanting these interactions.”

The app now uses Twilio SMS to send reminders about upcoming elections, along with links to voter registration forms and local polling place, with embedded maps. TurboVote also answers voter questions by text, with employees addressing each user’s question.  

“We make sure our texting interface provides as much information as email and can provide a viable alternative, because so many people prefer it,” Kathryn says.

The impact of the human element is substantial. Sometimes employees are helping a college student or first time, non-English-speaking voter understand their voting rights and how to register. Other times they’re answering a more challenging question, such as determining which of four possible residences an active-duty member of the military should claim for voting.

Simplicity makes a big impact

A self-described tech nerd, Kathryn believes technology doesn’t have to be disruptive to be effective. “We don’t need an Uber for everything,” she says. “Technology can improve people’s lives in very concrete, tangible, small ways. We’re using the Twilio API as a medium for human-to-human conversation, which is in many ways the biggest changemaker.”

Kathryn says the simplicity of the Twilio platform is important, because the organization’s other work can be extremely complicated. “We have to know where elections are taking place across the country on any given Tuesday,” she explains. “We have to know the rules for those elections, because they vary so much by state and by county. I’m glad Twilio makes building out automated text messages very easy, because a lot of what we do isn’t.”

What’s more, TurboVote is reaching people with technology that doesn’t require a massive IT team or physical infrastructure. “Consider the ease of setting up Twilio with a single developer relative to how many voters we’re able to reach,” Kathryn says. “Not to mention what we’re able to bring them by choosing text over email. In many ways, this was a no-brainer.”

Through its simple, engaging platform, Democracy Works has made significant strides toward registering eligible voters. TurboVote served more than 1 million users in the 2016 presidential election. Of those, 62% successfully registered and voted in the 2016 election. 80% voter participation remains an ambitious goal, but Democracy Works is making impressive gains with every local, state, and federal election.

“We know we’re effective when we can slake people’s curiosity and leave them feeling excited to participate,” Kathryn says. “That’s where using messaging really well can make all the difference in the world.”


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