Henry Lippincott has been feeling guilty about not getting involved in politics. He grew up in the Washington DC area, and his dad worked for the Reagan administration, so his neighbors were involved in government. But him? He went the finance route, eschewing a degree in political science, and taking up a job at JP Morgan.
Now that he’s at Stanford Business School, however, he’s trying to make amends. “I was sort of a failure,” he jokes. “I felt guilty, and I when I got to Stanford, I wanted to change that.” To do so, he and two colleagues have built an online tool that not only give people a low-fuss way to register to vote, but also helps them make their voting decisions.
The US has notoriously low voter turnouts in elections compared to other Western democracies, and part of that has to do with the cumbersome registration process. “Convenience impacts voter turnout,” wrote Howard Steven Friedman, a Columbia University economist in a recent op-ed on Huffington Post. “In the United States, in all but one state, voters must go through a separate registration process before voting, and the vast majority of states do not allow Election Day registration. This two-step process [...] is more complicated than the process in many other countries and discourages some Americans from voting.”
That’s the problem Lippincott is trying to solve. Working out of Stanford’s “Venture Studio” incubator, he has just launched VoteBox, which turns the voting process into something more Americans are familiar with: Online shopping. “Our product is designed for people who are not politically passionate and politically engaged,” he says. “So if you only want to spend 15 minutes making your voting deisions, you can do that on our site. If you want to spend 15 hours, you can do that as well.”
For voters, the process is simple. VoteBox asks for your zip code and then pulls up all the election information relevant to your area. It then shows users who they can vote for while providing more information on each candidate. All you need to do is check the box of the candidate you want in office, and that candidate gets added to your “shopping cart.” If you feel like learning more about each candidate, you can read profile information at the click of a button.
After choosing all the candidates you want at the federal, state, and local levels, VoteBox fills out a ballot form on your behalf and lets you print it out before heading to the polls or mailing it in. By law, VoteBox is not allowed to submit the ballot on behalf of voters.
VoteBox is operating in a similar space to TurboVote, run by Democracy Works out of New York. TurboVote, however, concentrates more on actual registration and is not-for-profit. VoteBox is intent on helping people make voter decisions, as well as get registered, and intends to one day make money.
Lippincott says the startup will do that by letting candidates pay to fill out their profiles on the site and raise money through online donations, which will be powered by Rally.org’s Piryx system. Lippincott points out that hundreds of thousands of Americans are running for office this year at various levels, and most don’t have budgets big enough to be able to afford extensive advertising or fundraising mechanisms. VoteBox could be an affordable way to put themselves in front of voters, and the startup can provide aggregated and anonymized data to candidates on who is voting for whom.
As with any online political tool, VoterBox will face a battle for attention. Bigger players such as NationBuilder and TurboVote are already occupying much of the space in which Lippincott wants to play, and others are crowding in. So if VoteBox doesn’t get traction early, it could die a quick death. However, the political transparency tools is still an underdeveloped market — even NationBuilder has only been active in the last two years — so there is opportunity ahead.
VoteBox is in its very early stages and is so far only Web-based. Lippincott says the 2012 election is a pilot project and proof of concept. His team of 3.5 — him, one designer, one developer, and a contractor in India — has been working on the tool only since August. There are no mobile versions yet.