Jeremy Smith and Civitech Push the Progressive Vote for Nov 3
The Forrest Files: September 15, 2020
Jeremy Smith is Co-Founder and CEO of Civitech, an Austin-based startup that builds solutions for non-profits, candidates, activists, and local/state governments to ultimately improve government services.
A West Point graduate and Marshall Scholar, Smith served five years in the Army as an Engineer officer and Special Operations Planner. After leaving the military, Jeremy worked to provide operational guidance and planning for several Voter Protection initiatives, where he helped recruit, train, and coordinate more than 6,000 attorneys countering voter suppression in the 2016 election. Since then, he has run voter registration and voter protection efforts for elections in Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, and Texas.
With the November election less than 50 days away, he says that work-life tradeoff is difficult at present. But he adds that the most important activity he does to try to enforce some semblance of balance is reading:
“My favorite book is the Name of the Wind. I think it is an incredible stand-alone story and the beginning of an even more excellent series. I have given away physical copies to dozens of people over the last decade and I re-read it more than any other book. Like everyone else, I would love to see the author finish the series sooner rather than later, but I am also patient because of how good the story is. I am also excited about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement with the forthcoming screen adaptations.”
It is 2020. Are you surprised by the various voter suppression efforts that we are now seeing, most currently with the efforts to derail the USPS?
No, I learned the hard way about voter suppression while serving overseas. In 2012, while attempting to vote by mail while serving abroad, I found that I had been “purged” from my home town’s voter rolls in Tarrant county, Texas despite voting in 2008. After reading more on the subject, I learned about the myriad forms of voter suppression that are common around the country, and have spent the past four years combating these behaviors as a result. I am not surprised at all, but I am frustrated at how politicized the idea of helping Americans vote has become. I think it will get worse until we begin to actively change laws and policies to enforce fair standards.
How effective do you think these current voter suppression efforts will be for the November election?
I think we will see mass confusion in various counties and states that will cause many people to be unable to vote, or to have their vote discarded for procedural issues. It will be particularly maddening because the rules are different by county, which will give everyone involved a magnified sense of injustice. I think it is hard to predict exactly what happens as a result, but the people typically harmed are those who are new to voting, who do not have the means or opportunity to wait for hours or days to navigate the process, people with language barriers, and people with disabilities. This likely means that Democratic candidates will lose more votes than others, but it is always wrong to disenfranchise people this way, whether the failures are through malice or incompetence.
What is your guess for turnout of eligible votes in Texas in November 2020? Also, what is your guess for turnout of eligible votes in the entire US in November 2020?
I think it is really hard to predict turnout because of coronavirus and the shifting legal landscape for how voting works. Before the pandemic, I thought we were headed for record high turnout. I think that could still happen, but a lot more votes will be thrown out due to the issues with mail-in ballots, so I’m not sure where it lands. I would estimate that we will see 10M votes in Texas and at least 135M votes nationwide, which are higher than past elections. The pattern of growth from 2014 to 2018 is something I expect to see continue and potentially amplify from 2016 to 2020.
In 2020, are successful campaigns about which candidate has the best technology? If so, is this fundamentally different than how successful campaigns evolved in the past?
I don’t think so. I think good technology can enable better planning, more sophisticated organization and execution, and less spam. But I think the bar for competence is so low for campaigns that we haven’t reached a point where technology is the differentiating factor. Most campaigns are still struggling with the basics. It may be the case that a pandemic environment means good tech will play an outsize role this year, but I also think most Americans have decided which “side” they are on. I don’t agree with the mindset that you can micro target people with precision ads that persuade them to vote against the recommendations of their family, their friends, their community, or their church.
In cases where a campaign is well run and has good technology in play, I think you see them running laps around their opponents, but I don’t think that is common at all.
Which scenario is better? An OK candidate with incredible technology? Or an incredible candidate with OK technology?
It really depends. In small races like city council or school board, I think few people are paying attention, so an OK candidate with a better operation and incredible tech is extremely likely to win because voters are unlikely to hear about anyone else. At the national level, an incredible candidate will win without technology because there is so much societal apparatus built around talking about them already. Joe Biden and Donald Trump did not have more money, better tech, better organizing, or pretty much anything new age over their opponents in their most recent primaries. But they won because of better messaging and positioning based on what voters actually want.
Civitech generally works with progressive candidates. If someone from the GOP asks about making use of your services, what is your response?
It depends on the technology. We have a few different products. Some of our tools are fully nonpartisan and cannot be all that useful at drawing partisan distinctions. We work with government officials from both parties on such tools. For highly useful, partisan tools, we only work with nonpartisan candidates and Democratic candidates. This is partly to maintain trust on shared data ownership with those tools, and partly because we’ve made a decision as a group of employees as to who we want to support with our labor and innovations. In a future world where the Republican party changes its behavior on simple questions of voting rights, civil rights, and other issues, we would be glad to revisit that.
Is the same general technology used for a voter registration drive as is used for get out the vote efforts?
Overall yes. Both involve databases to keep track of completion by individual, marketing tools to disseminate information like how/where/when to vote and to try to motivate action, front-end tools to quickly organize information into bite-size chunks for workers/volunteers, and back-end logic to maintain compliance. We built our products from the beginning to be flexible to multiple purposes, which allows different kinds of campaigns and advocacy orgs to use the tools for their needs.
For the 2016 election, the Trump campaign invested a massive massive amount of dollars on Facebook ads — and these ads were apparently very successful. Do you think advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms will be as pivotal a player in the 2020 election?
I think it can be, but it is extremely nuanced. I think the Trump campaign had a better advertising strategy in 2016 and ultimately did better detail work. But I also think they grossly inflate the relative importance of those efforts in hindsight. I think we spend too much money on politics, by a lot. I think most of the evidence suggests that political persuasion ads do not work and the political industry spends at least 80% of most campaign budgets on something that doesn’t make sense and does not appear to work. However, it is clear that you can act in bad faith to tear down trust more easily and effectively than you can build it up, and I think many people did not factor that into their analysis.
I also think that advertising is mostly wasted money and effort on these platforms, but that the organic strategies are far more valuable and effective than they are given credit for. Spending $500M on Facebook seems like exceptionally poor decision making to me, but creating content with a small army of people that is meaningful and engaging and then sharing it out amongst tens of millions of willing partisans is wildly effective and efficient. The Republicans are massively better at this than Democrats. Part of that is an imbalance between the kinds of people in each party and the issues they care about. And part of this is because Republicans treated content creation and dissemination as a serious marketing strategy to improve their brand and electoral outcomes, while Democrats have been slow/late/absent from this.
Do you see a scenario where the US ever abolishes the Electoral College? And, if so, how would this kind of change impact a company like yours?
I think so. I think there are a number of initiatives that could succeed on this front, and I can also see it sticking around forever. I don’t think it affects our company either way in material terms. The only difference is that, for Presidential elections, you have to weight the relative value of voters differently by state because of how the Electoral College forces a strategic focus. It changes the math for us, but only in one election out of five hundred thousand every four years.
Internet users are more and more conscious of the data trails they leave — and how these data trails can be used by marketers. Should users also be concerned about their lack of privacy with regards to voting records?
I don’t think so. I think there are far more invasive records that are used in politics that should be cleaned up or limited, but I don’t think the current voting record system is problematic. Your voting record is public as to whether you voted and where, but not who you voted for. This is really important so that any individual voter, journalist, or campaign can verify whether the state counted someone’s vote.
Register2Vote, another of your projects, received a nice writeup in Wired in October 2018. Did that lead to lots of new interest in what you are doing as a result of that report?
For sure. Register2Vote’s project MapTheVote is a really cool tool that is free for anyone to use anywhere in the country. It helps you see your neighbors without revealing any PII (personally identifiable information) who need help registering to vote. It’s entirely free and extremely advanced and it has been used to register tens of thousands of people in the past year by all volunteers helping their own communities. After that article in Wired, we received a lot of interest from other states (we originally only supported Texas, but now have the whole country) and from lots of other countries. People around the world want to make their country better and reached out to us for help. We shared our code with them on Github along with a written document of suggestions for how to adapt/employ it in an effort to support their work.
How many people are currently part of the Civitech team? In the startup vernacular, is the operation entirely bootstrapped — or have you received funding?
We have 31 full time employees now and six paid interns who are fully integrated into the team. We received seed funding in a SAFE in 2019, but have been able to grow much larger on revenue over the first year. We anticipate an A-level funding round in early 2021.
Why was Austin a better place for your election-related startup to call home as opposed to Silicon Valley?
We chose Austin strategically. We think that Austin is a great place to live and has the talent pool we need with better quality of life and a supportive ecosystem for startups. We also think Texas is a major epicenter for national politics and that it is a burgeoning market (in both the financial and civic sense). Texas has been the worst state for many years in terms of voting rates, but we thought that was changing and that it will have substantial repercussions as it does. And we are from Texas and feel a sense of duty to some degree.
What happens with Civitech (and your life) after Tuesday, November 3?
We probably help with a few recounts around the country, but as soon as possible we are sending everyone on a vacation for a few weeks at least. The team has been working startup hours + election hours, and we intensely feel the weight of that duty as core infrastructure. Once we have some breathing room, it is vital to give everyone a rest first. Then we begin work on some planned product releases for April 1st, 2021 and we spread out across the country with technology designed to help anyone run for local office in one of the 500K+ elections nationwide.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.