Apps become new political yard signs

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indentified one of Votizen’s backers as Twitter founder Biz Stone. Though he uses the technology, he is not an investor.

March 9, 2012

It’s a little too early in the year to spot many of them, but in a few months, mushrooming across front lawns, campaign signs will be everywhere. They’ll spread to family cars as bumper stickers. They’ll pop up on jackets as political buttons. Soon, they’ll even be showing up on our digital profiles.

Three tech startups — Votizen, VotingSocial and WhistleStop — have begun to populate your Facebook feed, Twitter streams and LinkedIn page with messages from friends encouraging, arguing about and debating the political landscape.

The companies want to empower democracy by taking the conversation to where people talk these days: online.

Two-year-old Silicon Valley-based Votizen is the oldest of the bunch and packs the most star power (it’s backed by Napster founder Sean Parker and actor Ashton Kutcher). It accesses voter records to let users target friends with similar political leanings. Sign up for the app and see which of your Facebook friends vote most regularly and in which states.

Chief executive David Binetti said its 20,000 active users can reach more than 800,000 registered voters in their friend lists. That’s a fraction of the 131 million people who voted in 2008, but Binetti sees promise. He points to the recent Michigan primary, for which Votizen users sent more than 10,000 messages targeting Michigan voters on the day of the primary. If Votizen can grow its base by the next presidential election, it could have the power to swing states.

VotingSocial, meanwhile, is an app within Facebook created by Washington tech company EastBanc Technologies. (The company has done some work for The Washington Post Web site.) Sign up and get access to a database with information on each presidential candidate — voting records, positions on issues and ratings among interest groups. (President Obama scores a zero favorable rating with National Right to Life; Ron Paul gets a 72 percent positive from the National Association of Manufacturers.) There are also directions to the polls and a calendar to list the big voting days. The information is available in other locations, but Wolf Ruzicka said he wanted to create a one-stop destination within the space, Facebook, that many inhabit online.

WhistleStop, also created by a Washington-based group, tracks how politicians are doing each week according to their online conversation buzz. Launched last week, it’s similar to The Washington Post’s Mention Machine, which rates how politicians are faring based on Twitter chatter. WhistleStop encourages users to raise their candidate’s ratings through liking on Facebook, tweeting about the candidate and viewing the politician’s YouTube videos.

The founders of each app speak passionately about a broken connection between candidates and constituents and say that money has supplanted relationships to a harmful degree in U.S. politics. They hope to fix that.

“We’re creating a new form of political currency,” Votizen’s Binetti said. In some near future, Binetti envisions “elected officials spend[ing] more time friend raising than fundraising.”

VotingSocial’s Ruzicka moved to the United States years ago from Germany and has since been troubled by the low voter participation rates. Even with 2008’s historic election, only 64 percent of voting-age citizens went to the polls.

But what happens when November’s high-profile presidential election is over?

All three founders agree that that’s when the real work starts. Will people use their sites in a grass-roots way in the thousands of small elections that make up the bulk of U.S. politics?

“It’s an experiment,” Ruzicka said. “It’s to see if we can make a difference.”

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