A panel of experienced entrepreneurs discussed the effects of technology on the current election cycle and electoral politics in general at the Polsky Center last Thursday.
Founding partner of 270 Strategies Betsy Hoover, Optimus co-founder Scott Tranter, Director of Data Science Research and Development at Civis Analytics David Shor, and BallotReady co-founder and CEO Alex Niemczewski were the panel members.
While each organization discussed different aspects of the election, they all emphasized addressing gaps in logic and information with technology. Tranter and Shor, for example, both started their work as a response to the guesses and assumptions campaigns would use to make decisions.
“We were always in a room where people would say ‘huh, I won this race like that, let’s do that again’, and there is really no rhyme or reason behind it,” Tranter said. “We wanted to bring some rigor, specifically academic rigor, to the testing side of it.”
On the voter’s side of the process, Niemczewski of BallotReady aims to reduce the number of empty boxes or uninformed checkmarks that voters leave on the ballot by providing accessible information about candidates. “We want people to know who is running and whether or not they are choosing the best candidate, or the best of bad options. We want them to feel confident about their decisions,” she said.
Not all changes in the modern era have advanced data science in electoral politics, Shor said, citing a drop in response rates to polls throughout his career. These lower rates make proper research more difficult to obtain as certain demographics are significantly more likely to respond to polls and are consequently overrepresented. “If you are an older white woman, you are 100 times more likely to pick up the phone than a young Hispanic man,” Shor said. Shor added that Democrats lost by vast margins several Senate races in 2014 that were measured as close by public polling.
The panel agreed that there is plenty of room for progress at the intersection of technology and elections.
“Even though we do a lot of data and analytics and technology, campaigns haven’t really changed since how they were run 30 years ago. There are still clipboards, there are still knocking on doors,” Shor said. He continued to explain that voter targeting today has become much more sophisticated, but the actual methods campaigns use has not changed in decades.
Hoover said the implementation of technology for electoral uses has lagged in part due to the cyclical nature of elections. “We end up being set back each cycle, and having to build back from the ground up,” Hoover said. Other panelists, however, said that many corporations and non-profits engage the community in ways similar to an electoral campaign, and these electoral advances provide a framework for engagement.
The talk was jointly hosted by the Polsky Center for entrepreneurship, the Social Initiative Center, and the Institute of Politics.