i3 | April 05, 2021

The Cross-Section of Tech and Politics

Political discourse has clearly been impacted by technology. To address just a sliver of that discussion, here is a quick look at the last few years through the work of one young programmer, Robert West who works for Phone2Action, a political advocacy tech company located in Arlington Virginia.

He joined Phone2Action in 2017 as part of its summer fellowship program, which brings in high school and college tech students to work on the Phone2Action platform as well as experimental projects. Robert’s initial project, with Liam Rathke and Hugo Burbelo, was a social media analytics suite. As part of that suite, the three high school students created a sentiment analysis tool designed to track social media reaction to political events, such as the President’s State of the Union address, in real-time. 

Developed as a summer intern project, Phone2Action had the three share their program at CES 2018. They were the youngest exhibitors at CES that year and their live demonstrations of the social media response to Trump’s tweets garnered plenty of attention.

Phone2Action at CES
Source: Courtesy of Phone2Action

Fast Forward to 2020

The recent presidential election was the largest turnout in over a century. Robert and a small team of young Phone2Action engineers wrote a Get Out the Vote program that let voters check their registration, get information on elected officials and candidates, and, if you weren’t registered, made it easy to register in whatever state was your residence. 

Altogether, the program was used by over 1,700,000 people to register to vote. Millions of others used it to check their registration, learn more about their local candidates, and find out about local rule changes in response to the pandemic. 

According to Robert, “We feel that voting is crucial in any circumstance, but the situation surrounding the 2020 election made us feel our work was even more important. We wanted to make sure voters were informed beyond just the high-profile presidential race and that they could get the most specific and up to date information about the ever-changing voting conditions due to the pandemic. Our work was helping people stay aware and safe.”

However, having a great program is only part of the challenge. Creating awareness about the program was crucial to its success. The site was designed to be white-labeled, rebranded to fit whichever group or individual was willing to push the site. 

Many organizations and artists went out of their way to promote Get Out the Vote. Musical artists such as Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, David Byrne, Dead and Co., and Lenny Kravitz launched campaigns through their various platforms. Social media influencers such as Ninja and David Dobrik created giveaways using the site. Dobrik offered a chance to win one of five Teslas for registering to vote or checking your registration and signed up more than 120,000 people. Many got involved, including Instacart, Seventh Generation, HeadCount, UnidosUS, GlobalCitizen, NextGen America, Human Rights Campaign, and even CTA.

What's Next?

Robert, now a student at the College of William and Mary, said, “I want to do more to get people to understand and impact the day-to-day actions in the world of politics. For too many people, politics and government only enter their mind in regard to the presidential election every four years. There’s so much more to it than that, especially at the state and local level.”

i3 magazine March/April 2021 cover

Subscribe to i3 Magazine

I3, the flagship magazine from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®, focuses on innovation in technology, policy and business as well as the entrepreneurs, industry leaders and startups that grow the consumer technology industry. Subscriptions to i3 are available free to qualified participants in the consumer electronics industry.