The Revolution Digitized
When grassroots movements and technology meet
Traditional political strategy suggests rigid guidelines that campaigns need to follow to win: buy expensive TV advertisements, heavily rely on large donations from extremely wealthy supporters, solicit money from corporations and corporate political action committees — a plethora of investments that require a hefty budget and elite connections. But as progressive movements and campaigns have gained traction, campaign leaders have found a new fountain of wealth to tap into: people power.
Harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of people seeking change requires great team-building skills and techniques, but it also requires technology that supports and empowers everyday people. Through technology, grassroots campaigns have been able to engage populations who have historically been barred from entering the political arena and mobilize communities of activists across state lines. As technology reinvents the way we operate in every aspect of our lives, it also redefines what it means to be politically involved and reshapes what the typical political campaign looks like.
A large part of campaigning is talking to voters, also known as canvassing or direct voter contact. Canvassing is an essential process used to persuade undecided voters and identify supporters. Traditionally, canvassing has been done through door-to-door interactions — volunteers are equipped with a list of addresses and knock doors to talk to voters about their candidate or issue. However, there are significant limitations to this method of canvassing. Most notably, very few people answer the door and even fewer have time or willingness to talk. Leo Sussan, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Director of Technology, has set out to change that through his app Reach.
Sussan’s political career started with an email. He had always followed politics closely but, prior to 2016, never thought there was a place for him in the arena. It wasn’t accessible, it wasn’t realistic. So, he built his career doing digital work in the private sector, working on projects for companies like GoPro and American Express. After 2016, Sussan realized it was no longer an option for him to remain on the sidelines. When Sussan heard Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, progressive Michigan gubernatorial candidate, speaking on a podcast, he was immediately inspired to take action. A few emails to El-Sayed’s team later, he was on board.
Sussan worked remotely from New York on a small volunteer team that created graphics for the Michigan campaign. Sussan loved the work, as it gave him the purpose he craved, however, it was hard to do it all remotely. A few months passed, and the El-Sayed campaign received an endorsement from the progressive organization, Justice Democrats. Following that endorsement, Sussan discovered that there was a Justice Democrat candidate running for congress in his district, N-14 — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When Sussan first volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez, the campaign was in the stage of gathering signatures. In New York, congressional candidates must collect 1,250 signatures in order to be on the ballot. The first time Sussan braved the cold to collect signatures for Ocasio-Cortez, he happened to meet her.
“I was having a conversation with a very irate older fellow who had been politically involved in Queens for a long time,” Sussan said. “Alexandria turns the corner, looks this man right in the face and proceeds to diagnose the exact problem with the political process in Queens and how she was going to address and fix it. In two and a half minutes I saw this man go from completely angry to a fervent, ardent supporter of hers. I was shocked. I had never seen anything like it.”
From that moment, Sussan knew Ocasio-Cortez was special. He joined the volunteer-run campaign and lead the content, development and technology teams. There, he met Jake DeGroot, the Digital Organizing Director of the campaign.
DeGroot was running a special project, working to reimagine the typical canvassing process. DeGroot had enjoyed the process of collecting signatures — standing on the street corner with a clipboard, talking to anyone who was willing to stop — as opposed to door-to-door canvassing. The process of talking to voters and getting signatures was liberating and allowed him to talk to people in a more efficient way; as he talked to people on the street, he was able to form more natural connections and relate on a deeper level. Channeling those experiences into action, DeGroot had developed a prototype of a voter identification (voter ID) system that allowed users to canvass in a new and improved way. Essentially, using this new system, users could canvass anyone they would like, anywhere they would like and quickly match the person to their voter information from a larger database. Volunteers on the Ocasio-Cortez campaign tested it out and it proved to be extremely successful. After Ocasio-Cortez won the primary election, DeGroot and Sussan joined forces to spin the prototype into a full-blown app that could be utilized by other campaigns: Reach.
It’s a common sentiment in the progressive world that real change happens only by meeting people where they’re at. With Reach, campaign volunteers can do just that — they can canvass anyone, anywhere, from Uber drivers to strangers at the grocery store. The app streamlines the process of identifying likely voters and simultaneously makes it more enjoyable for everyone. The first time the Reach team deployed the app in its current iteration to a campaign, volunteers were ecstatic.
“One of the first folks I gave it to ran across the street to a playground and canvassed 100 people, mostly moms who were playing with their kids,” Sussan said. “He was a community leader, someone who people knew. He got 100 IDs that we wouldn’t have had otherwise in just an hour.”
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Reach is the stipulations enforced on the campaigns that use the tool. The mission of Reach is to power a world where progressive grassroots activism beats corporate cash campaigns; in order for a campaign to use Reach, they must not accept money from corporate PACs, corporate lobbyists, the real estate industry or Wall Street firms. The Reach team has seen these stipulations make change in real time — they have experienced campaigns choosing to give up corporate money in order to have access to Reach.
“The ultimate reason campaigns take corporate money is because money buys more folks to work on their campaign, better tools, expensive ads, a higher chance of winning,” Sussan said. “If there are tools that corporate money can’t buy, strategies that corporate money shields you from investing in, the calculus begins to change pretty significantly.”
Reach has already made an incredible impact and has been used on campaigns across the country, from school-board races and congressional grassroots campaigns to Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
While DeGroot and Sussan are officially the Co-Founders of the app, they are quick to credit five core volunteers from the Ocasio-Cortez team who stayed on to help build the company as a key component in their success.
“If they hadn’t chosen to donate their nights and weekends to people whom they had only recently met and barely knew, Reach would assuredly not exist today,” Sussan said.
Not only has technology reinvented the tools that can be used by volunteers, but it has also revolutionized who’s able to volunteer in the first place. In the past few election cycles, there has been a rise in distributed organizing — a strategy that creates opportunities for supporters to have a larger role in campaigning. Campaigns organize teams of supporters turned volunteers on digital workspace platforms, communicating through text-like messages and group chats. On these platforms, campaign staff can delegate tasks to teams of volunteers. Technology tools have also allowed people from all over the country to be involved in races that are not in their district.
Michigan native Bridget Huff has been out of the traditional job market for years due to kids, elder care, a spouse who traveled and personal medical issues, but the digital shift in organizing has enabled her to take major roles in campaigns across the country doing outreach and planning.
“I have had days that I’ve done texting and calling for four or five different candidates and proposals from my couch while my kids are next to me sick,” Huff said. “[I] never set foot in an office yet I know all the volunteers, candidates and leaders. It’s a whole new world for politics and it gives the power to people who are typically excluded. The networks are infinite. That makes our power infinite.”
Huff is an alum of Movement School, a ten-week intensive remote, online training program working to train the next generation of campaign staffers and organizers. Movement School works towards translating activism into political power by giving community organizers and passionate citizens the tools they need. During the program, fellows from all around the country and from all walks of life, learn what it takes to work on a campaign: how to mobilize volunteers, create effective messaging, integrate technology tools and utilize digital strategy. After completing the program, fellows are connected to job opportunities on progressive campaigns.
As progressive platforms grow in popularity, why rely on tradition political tools? Technological innovations like Movement School and Reach are giving power back to everyday people in an unprecedented way, consequently reshaping the political arena as we know it and allowing for more diverse leadership.
“We want a world of politics where people who don’t have money or connections can run for office and work as campaign staff,” Movement school co-founder Gabe Tobias said. “We want that to be the norm.”