Whether it’s changing the methods of how people vote or altering the laws of who is allowed to step into a booth, the process of electing officials in the United States has evolved considerably over the past two-plus centuries.
And if several Kennedy School grads get their way, the voting world will be shaken up even further —not just this November but for years to come.
Over the past few years, Seth Flaxman MPP 2011, Kathryn Peters MPP 2011, Amanda Cassel Kraft MPP 2011, and Kahlil Byrd MC/MPA 2003 have each pursued a unique venture to improve democracy. They set their sights on specific issues in the electoral process: scarce turnout and the lack of nonpartisan candidates. From their perspectives, plugging these gaping flaws will be yet another step forward in perfecting the democratic process.
Their views on democracy are unusual, to say the least, but the novel nature of those views be may just what America is looking for.
The Process Simplified
By his own admission, Seth Flaxman had fallen out of love with politics by the time he came to the Kennedy School.
Instead, he was far more fascinated with the election process behind it. So when Flaxman began his graduate studies, he posed a question to himself, one that had perplexed him for years. How could more people be drawn to vote?
In the eyes of Flaxman, improving democracy lies with increasing participation. To address this issue, he cofounded TurboVote at the beginning of 2010 with Kathryn Peters and Amanda Cassel Kraft while all three were MPP students at the Kennedy School.
TurboVote is a service that gives people the opportunity to vote (and register to vote) from the comfort of their own homes. The service can track your election calendar, send completed ballot request forms along with a stamped envelope to users, and text voting reminders. All the recipient has to do is sign and mail the form . Flaxman sees it as a way to make voting “as easy as renting a Netflix DVD.”
According to TurboVote, 30 states and the District of Columbia allow individuals to request a mail-in ballot without any excuse. All the states permit those who commute, college students, and people with excuses to vote as absentees.
“A lot of problems result from people not participating in the voting process,” says Flaxman, who, along with Peters, was named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list in the field of law and policy in 2011. “When participation is this low, it’s only the most partisan people who vote, so our politicians cater to ideologues and refuse to compromise.
“I don’t think that anything is more important than a functioning democracy. Government needs to be by all of the people if it’s going to be for all the people.”
So far, the Brooklyn-based TurboVote has impressive backing. The company has received funding from Google, the Knight Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation (where Flaxman was recently named a fellow). Additionally, through the university’s Institute of Politics, TurboVote was able to launch at Harvard last fall. The company is continuing to introduce its services to universities throughout the country, hoping to draw a younger population to the polls with the lure of convenience.
Peters says that there has been more of a demand for the company’s services over the past few months. Schools have reached out to TurboVote in an effort to create partnerships. For Peters, it’s been an interesting process to see the company’s brand name grow. She says that at a recent conference she “actually met people who told me, ‘TurboVote! I’ve heard of you guys,’ which is still a bit shocking — and gratifying.”
The company has come a long way in just two short years, says Peters. “After working for a year and a half as a distributed team working from Cambridge, DC, Toronto, and even Denver at times, it’s been amazing to all come together in a real office and work seriously on the question of ‘How do we build tools to make voting easier?’”
In her eyes, this is just the beginning for the company. “We’re already on track to serve one million voters by November,” Peters says, “but frankly I’m far more excited about what will happen when we return to those voters next spring and summer about school board elections and local bond issues.
“We’ve tapped into the enthusiasm that builds up around presidential races, and now we’re thinking about how to maintain that level of engagement and interest in all these other elections that impact our lives and communities just as much — if not more. I’m actually more excited for 2013.”
The People’s Candidate
Kahlil Byrd had a different vision when it came to shaking up the voting world. For him, there simply aren’t enough options for people to choose from.
There’s either a Democratic nominee that most voters don’t want in there or a Republican that they feel the same way about. And nothing more.
To make the voting process fairer to the public, Byrd and his associates want to give voters a chance to directly nominate the candidate of their choice — a sort of representative of the people.
Byrd is the CEO of Americans Elect, an organization that uses the Internet to give the public its own online convention to pick a nonpartisan candidate. Since its launch, in 2010, the organization has received an overwhelmingly positive response, Byrd says, as voters are appreciating the chance to directly influence the voting process.
“People have found it to be a breath of fresh air,” says Byrd, whose experience in politics has led to posts running or advising campaigns for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents across the nation. “It’s the first time that people get to directly nominate a person for public office.”
This year, Americans Elect attempted to get on the ballot in all 50 states and produce a third candidate for the 2012 election. As more than 2.5 million people signed the organization’s petition the organization planned to open up the primary process in May. After three rounds of voting, six candidates would be left standing for the nomination. Anyone who ran had to reach across party lines to find a running mate.
“Americans Elect is really set up so that voters can do two things,” says Byrd. “First, the voters can select the issues that they most identify with. And then they can support those candidates who meet their needs.”
Anyone eligible under the Constitution was eligible to pursue the nomination, and Americans Elect refused to promote any one candidate over another. Voting was to take place under a state-of-the-art security system to ensure fairness in the process. There was a mixed bag of more than 100 declared candidates, including the former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, a Boston University economics professor, and a CEO.
In May, however, Americans Elect announced that no candidate had achieved the threshold required to enter the online convention, which meant the nomination process for the 2012 presidential election had come to an end. According to Byrd, the decision stemmed from a desire to honor the organization’s rules-based process. He believes the decision both respects the trust of the American public and creates a solid future for the organization.
The group is elated by the impact it had. Through America Elect’s efforts, it accrued more than 4 million supporters, from volunteers to petition signers to delegates. Additionally, it received heavy coverage from all the major news sources, including The New York Times and NPR.
When he considers all that Americans Elect accomplished, the future is bright in Byrd’s eyes.
“From when we launched in 2010 all the way to this May, we saw a group of people who organized over the idea of having a third choice,” he says. “The Americans Elect community is a tough and energized group, and we are holding strong.”
Byrd says that the organization will take some time to rethink its strategy and future path. One possibility is taking the concept of Americans Elect to the state-government level.
Ultimately, despite falling short of its goal in 2012, the group was encouraged by the results.
“What we were able to see was a great hunger,” says Byrd. “People appreciated that we were taking this completely different concept and trying to change things. People wanted to see change happen in 2012.”
Andrew Clark is a freelance writer living in Brockton, Massachusetts.