The idea is to take the risk out of that first step of running for office by testing the waters with a crowdfunding site, said Crowdpac co-founder and CEO Steve Hilton (whose lengthy resume includes campaign manager for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron).
In a presidential election dominated by outsiders and unconventional politicians, Hilton and the Crowdpac team hope their tool will motivate less-politically connected and more independent-minded Americans on the state and local level to run for office, too. (Editor's note: This is a remarkably optimistic -- some would say naive -- view of how to expand the pool of people running for office.)
The Fix spoke with Hilton about the tool and how he thinks it could change the future of political fundraising. His answers are edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: Walk me through how this would work. I'm a candidate and want to run for office.
HILTON: It could be you, or remember, the other thing is people can nominate a friend -- you could have a colleague or someone in your community you think could serve.
It's exactly like the process of starting a campaign on one of the crowdfunding sites: you go to Crowdpac and you create a funding page for your candidate, whether that's yourself or someone you nominated. It literally takes a couple of minutes, you put in your name, select the race, and we already have a database of races at all federal and state and increasingly at the local level.
You upload a quick video saying why you think you’d do a good job and that's pretty much it. You can immediately share that page just like you would share any other crowdfunding page with your friends or network and invite them to pledge to that candidate.
THE FIX: But like a crowdfunding campaign, those pledges aren't actual donations until the product (or in this case, candidate) becomes official, right?
HILTON: That's the crucial thing. One of the biggest barriers we’ve seen of people running for office is actually raising the money. First, the difficulty of asking your friends or family for money. People find that to be a real barrier. But also the logistics around it because campaign election law means that in order to raise money for a campaign and to be an official candidate, you have to go through some legal steps, file papers, set up an official committee to legally accept funds for your campaign. Those kinds of barriers are a lot for the average person. They just think, 'Man it's too complicated, too much of a hassle.'
We're eliminating that with this concept of pledging. It's kind of a no-risk way for people to see, hey 'I've got the support.'
THE FIX: Does the page stay live if you become a candidate?
HILTON: Yes. If the potential candidate becomes an official candidate, then their page on Crowdpac changes from a crowdfunding page into an official candidate page. All the pledges have been made have been charged and listed as official donations.
THE FIX: But the candidate still has to do all the paperwork you mentioned earlier.
HILTON: Yeah, then you go to do the bureaucratic stuff. But by then you're more confident because you know you've raised whatever it is. You know that you've got some support behind you. People say, 'Yeah, I'll support you with money,' and you know you've got that in the bank, as it were.
THE FIX: How does this disrupt the traditional political process?
HILTON: To run now, you need actual donations. So that means you're already a candidate and that means you've already gone through that process of setting up that committee. So what we hope this will do is make it much easier for more independent candidates or independent-minded candidates.
Because that's what's happening at the moment. Really, your choice is basically to sign up as part of the Republican machine or Democratic machine because you need the fundraising and the campaign support to go with that. If you're more independent minded and don't feel that either of the two main parties don't present exactly what you want to campaign on, then it's really is hard.
THE FIX: It's notable you're launching a year out from 2016. Where do you expect this to get traction?
HILTON: We've been testing it in various parts of the country, and it feels like there's real demand for this, and it might actually be mostly at the local level of politics. Something like 75 percent of all actual elections in the country, if you look at the numbers of elections, happen at the local or county level, and that's obviously an easy place to start.
And that's why we're trying to do is make this whole process of getting into politics easy for people to take that first step.
THE FIX: Are Americans used to the idea of crowdfunding at this point? I imagine the people who are skew younger, while the people who are traditionally politically active skew older.
HILTON: We do expect that younger people will be the first to get behind this but that's a good thing, because we want more young people running for office. You've got a huge amount of energy and interest in what's going on in the world for young people. But it isn't really turning into effective action in the democratic process.
So what we want to do is harness that energy and direct it right into the political system. And say to young people 'Don't just protest or take action online. Actually get involved and run for office yourself. We know the whole process is off-putting and old fashioned and complicated, and that's why we're trying to make it easier for you.'
THE FIX: Is there a concern someone will use this platform, thinking it's easy to run for office, and then get disenchanted with how much hard work it actually is?
HILTON: That's something we want to take [into account] as well. We've taken one bite out of this, which is the fundraising part. I would really like to look at the whole process.
THE FIX: Where do you take this idea from here?
HILTON: We want to open that whole system up so anyone can say 'I can care about this particular issue, that means I need to donate to that candidate, that race.' And those are tools we've already started creating as well. So I think this is just a start.
It's just really trying to say to people, 'Look, don't leave politics to the insiders, and don't assume that people like you can't run for office because you're not already politically connected, and the kind of person you think a politician is.'
Anyone can run for office. We can all do it, and now we've made it really simple to take that first step.