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The Future of Technology in Elections: An Interview with ElectNext’s Keya Dannenbaum

ElectNext Keya Dannenbaum

Which presidential candidate best represents your political ideology?  Seems like a fairly straightforward question, right?  Before getting too confident in your response, I suggest taking a quick stop over at Keya Dannenbaum’s latest venture, ElectNext.

What has been dubbed the “OkCupid of Politics,” the concept behind ElectNext is pretty simple.  First, select the topics that matter most to you (e.g. Abortion, Taxes, or Education).  Then answer at least ten questions based on these topics.  Before long, you’ll be prompted to view your matches revealing a score indicating which presidential candidates best align with your views.

The implications of a service like ElectNext has the potential to be profound.  No longer does anyone over the age of 18 have an excuse for ignorance.  Within five to ten minutes on this simple UI candidate match website, a user can have a clear understanding of which candidate best matches their orientation.

I reached out to Dannenbaum, NextElect’s Co-Founder and CEO, to learn more about the inspiration behind the service and to see what we could expect moving forward.

Tech Cocktail (TC): What was your inspiration in creating ElectNext?  Where did the idea stem from?

Keya Dannenbaum (KD): I’ve always been idealistic and driven to “change the world,” and I started out determined to do so on the world stage. So I studied international relations as an undergrad, moved to Bogota, Colombia to work with displaced populations and child soldiers, packed up again and moved to Mumbai, India to work with (and ultimately write a book on) marginalized women, and I came home to start a PhD in international politics.

My first discovery in the doctoral program was that the life of an academic would not be for me; my second was American rather than international politics.  I took a class called “Democratic Theory and Practice” that examined democratic philosophy alongside American political science literature on how we actually vote (or, often don’t!) in practice.  The year was 2007, so I left the degree for for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, which I followed with two years and several local-level races in New Haven, CT.

What amazed me in the transition from the national to local level politics was the extent to which the issues so intimately connected with our daily lives are addressed at the municipal level, and that’s where we check out.  When I moved to New Haven it was one of the most dangerous urban centers in the country, all the while a national model in education reform.  The issues at stake were safety, security and the future of a city’s children.  Yet I was involved in city council races that turned on a coin flip:  a twelve-vote loss, a nineteen-vote win.

Then I moved to Philadelphia for business school in the fall of 2010.  “Too busy” to register, or vote, I completely missed the really important midterm elections. It was deeply personally disappointing.  And catalyzing.  If it was this hard for me, of course it was this hard (or harder) for everyone else, and there had to be a better way.

TC: Was this an attempt to create an entirely new service, or improve upon what was already being offered? Who/what do you see as ElectNext’s biggest competition?

KD: Every voter has experienced the moment when you enter the polling booth knowing exactly who you want to choose for President and are blindsided with a ballot that’s three pages long, filled with people and offices you’ve never heard of.  Suddenly you go from being in control to making completely arbitrary choices – based on party line, or names that sound vaguely familiar, or skipping it altogether.

The question is: Why?  All the information you need is out there – it’s just not accessible in a way that is relevant and actionable. So our challenge at ElectNext is a data challenge.

We are working to collect and organize those volumes of information and present them in a way that makes it simple and straightforward for you to discover, and vote for, the best candidates for you.

We’re certainly not the only ones seeking new ways to enable the consumption of political knowledge and the facilitation of political action. There are sites that do try to pull together all the data, but without the matching. There are sites that do the matching, but without taking on the data challenge. Our approach is completely different from anything we have seen before because we’re the only ones tackling both sides of the coin, for voting.

TC: What is required of your service moving forward to be the go-to candidate matching service for the 2012 elections?

KD: Solving the data problem.  In 2012, all the major newspapers will have some sort of 10-question poll that tells you whether you’re better off with Obama vs. the Republican nominee.  These quizzes are fun but not exactly useful.  If our platform helps you out even at the levels of Senate and House in 2012, now you get something from us that you can’t get anywhere else. Now we’re adding value.

TC: Have you received funding and/or are you looking for funding moving forward?

KD: We have received some seed capital, primarily from the Philadelphia-based DreamIt Ventures startup accelerator. We are currently raising a round to take us through the November 2012 cycle.

TC: What are your visions of the future for ElectNext?  Do you look to expand the service in other directions?  If so, what hurdles are you anticipating along the way?

KD: Because we’re a brand new company facing a big election year, particularly over the next ten months we’re exclusively focused on voting.

Beyond November 2012, not only are we striving for depth – by compiling information on your candidates all the way down your ballot, from President to dogcatcher – we are also striving for longevity – or the ability to hold individuals accountable over time. The men and women who were your candidates yesterday are your elected officials today.  How are they serving your most important issues, and do they deserve your vote the next time around?

And in the very long term, there’s no reason why ElectNext can serve only the American electorate. To date, we’ve gotten requests for implementation abroad from people and organizations all over the world, including Mexico, Argentina, Israel, Japan, Taiwan and Australia.

TC: What role do you see technology playing in the 2012 election in comparison to 2008?  How do you plan on capitalizing on this?

KD: I can’t say it any better than this quote from Alastair Croll:

“After Eisenhower, you couldn’t win an election without radio. After JFK, you couldn’t win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn’t win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won’t be able to win an election without big data.”  

That’s where we’re playing, but flipped. Rather than building up data on voters to empower campaigns, we’re building up data on campaigns to empower voters.

TC: You have referred to your service as the “OK Cupid of Politics”, are you looking for a similar fate – to be acquired?  If so, who do you see as potential suitors?

KD: Not actively, no.  ElectNext is a double-bottom line social enterprise.  Our mission is what drives us, and to best serve that mission we’re supporting it with a for-profit model.

Our total focus, obsession even, is to help you vote.  To do that, we need to structure a lot of data and create an engaging user experience. Those are two things are really hard to do, and there’s little question that our success at either will make us naturally attractive to lots of larger players.  If an opportunity came knocking, we’d consider it first and foremost with respect to our organizations’ combined ability to bring actionable information to the American electorate.

Related reading: Who will win the 2012 election?

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About the Author

When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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