CEO update: 55 days to go and endless good news, friend

Debra Cleaver here, founder and CEO of VoteAmerica. Every so often I send an email update to everyone in my work contacts. There are about 4000 contacts, and almost all are people I know personally. Apparently these emails are fun to read. So in the interest of spreading joy, I’m going to cross post these emails on our blog. If you’d like to receive these emails, just shoot me an email at my work address. If you don’t have my work address, well, one day we will be friends and then you will have it. 

Sent on September 9, 2020
Subject: 55 days to go and endless good news, friend.

Welcome to Texas. Now it’s time to register to vote.

Hey friend,

I don’t send these emails often enough, so they have a tendency to get long. But they’re long because so much is happening, which I consider a generally good sign.

Print and mail is live in Texas for voter registration

  • VoteAmerica built out support for printing and mailing voter registration and vote by mail forms to voters who can’t use online tools (either because they don’t have the necessary ID or because their state doesn’t have one). Home printer ownership has been in the low single digits for over a decade now, which means that voters cannot print their forms at home. “Can you print and mail this form to me?” is the single most frequent request for help that my various voter turnout organizations have received since 2012, and it’s the most common request — by far — that we get at VoteAmerica.
  • So we solved this problem by integrating with This lets us print and mail individualized forms at scale.
  • We built the print and mail feature so we can turn it on and off by state and by the tool. This means that we can turn it on for Texas for voter registration forms, or for North Carolina for vote by mail forms, without turning it on in all 50 states for all tools
  • This is important because it costs actual money to print and mail forms to people. Right now it costs us $1.50 per form. This covers printing, envelopes, and two first-class stamps (we also include a postage-paid envelope for the voter to return her form to her local election office).
  • Next year we’ll be able to bring the cost down a bit by using bulk-mailing rates, but in 2020 it would be bat shit insane for us to not use first-class stamps.
  • So the good news is, this feature is built, and we turned it on for Texas voters this morning.
  • The bad news is that this feature will bankrupt us in no time flat. Texas is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t have online voter registration, and Texas doesn’t have online voter registration because they don’t want people of color and young people to register or vote. There are roughly 7 million unregistered people in Texas. We could text them all, multiple times, this week if we wanted, and drive them through the tool. Then we could mail them forms. But if we do, we’ll go bankrupt, which would be incredibly sad.
  • But there’s good news again! Anyone who asks us to print and mail a form absolutely intends to vote. And we can help them vote for relatively small amounts of money ($1.50 is nothing). And we can turn this off and on by state, and by tool, in 2 minutes flat.
  • So if you share my excitement over using technology to clear roadblocks to voting (and all of Texas is one big roadblock to voting), then you could chip in to fund our print and mail program. $1.50 pays to register someone who otherwise would not be able to register to vote. And $1.50 is a very small amount of money to increase voter turnout.
  • And if Texas isn’t your jam, you can help us pay for another state, or for vote by mail instead of voter registration.
  • But if you just want to mess with Texas (I do!) then help us fund Texas. This will greatly piss off the Texas Secretary of State, and that sparks joy. Who knows? Maybe Texas will give in and actually build online voter registration before the next presidential election, instead of setting money on fire by processing paper forms.

Email and SMS automated reminders are now live

  • We’re now sending automated email and SMS reminders to people who used our tools, reminding them to take the next step (often printing and mailing forms — see above). Those of you who work in marketing recognize these as “drip campaigns.” They are a very effective way to get people to take the next step in a process.
  • We’re also sending automated reminders to people who started the workflows and didn’t finish. This workflow is generally tied to abandoned online shopping carts, and you’ve personally experienced it anytime you put something in a shopping cart and then didn’t check out. Same exact idea, but now being used to increase voter turnout.

P2P SMS outreach campaign is live

  • We launched our P2P program today and sent 500,000 texts in the first 3 hours.
  • Funding provided, we’re on track to send at least 100 million P2P messages this year. Right now we’re focused on voter registration and vote by mail recruitment (getting folks to sign up to vote by mail).
  • P2P is infinitely more complicated than when I started doing this in 2016, so we built a team of experts in P2P technology and messaging, including alums from the Warren, Sanders, and Yang campaigns, as well as from Hustle (the pioneers of this idea and technology).
  • This means that our technology won’t collapse and our messages won’t get blocked at the carrier level. This is important because many P2P programs are going to collapse this year, which renders this tactic moot.
  • While I truly regret helping to popularize this tactic, there is no mistaking that it works very, very well for voter engagement.
  • We’re still actively raising funds for this program. There is a ton of voter registration to be done, including in my favorite state, Texas.
  • It costs us 60 cents to run a hyper-targeted outreach program to a low-propensity voter. 60 cents! That’s even less than the print and mail program. This is mind-bogglingly inexpensive. You should chip in to fund this program before this entire tactic goes away.

Our campus media program has launched

  • It’s hard to pick a favorite program, but this might be my favorite. In 2018, I placed full-page, full-color ads on the back of almost 600 campus newspapers, telling students that midterm elections are important and that they should vote on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.
  • Turnout on these campuses was a full 2 percentage points higher than campuses where I couldn’t buy the inventory. This sort of ROI is enough to make a voter turnout person dance in the streets.
  • In 2019, I did a more controlled buy that ran the full semester and walked students through the entire voting process. Turnout on campuses that received a full semester treatment was 6 percentage points higher than on the control campuses.
  • Now we’re taking everything we’ve learned running these programs, and scaling up. There are 10,000 colleges and universities in America. We’re focused campuses in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Maine 2nd district, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska 2nd district, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas.
  • There are two ways to slice this program: by state (as above) or by campus. While funders tend to like talking about entire states, I prefer to focus on campuses.
  • We spent a lot of time crunching competitiveness data up and down the ballot and then assigning points to races. The end result is a stack-ranked list of schools, based on how many competitive races the students can vote in.
  • Check out this spreadsheet, specifically the tab called stack ranked schools.
  • Right now we are funded to run programs at the 140 most competitive schools in America. But we can and should go bigger.
  • If you care about the youth vote, you should help fund this program. And not in some touchy-feely way, but in an ROI way. If you can get a young person to vote in 3 elections in a row, they become life-long voters. So these early investments pay dividends for decades. And honestly, it’s not very expensive.

More good news

  • Our tools have been used over 1 million times so far this year, and we are literally just getting started.
  • Based on our inbound traffic, the tools are embedded on almost 250 websites. This is just a fun stat, objectively.
  • We now have over 12,000 individual donors, which is something we are incredibly proud of.

Parting thoughts

  • A few days ago I got an email from the Biden campaign telling me that they spent $18 million dollars the week before on broadcast TV ads in five competitive states. I assume this was intended to make me want to donate. It did not have the intended effect.
  • According to the Nielsen company, 50% of people under 50 haven’t seen a single minute of broadcast television in the past year. Not a single minute. The only people who saw those ads were older, whiter, wealthier Americans who already know that they’re going to vote.
  • I’m sure the Biden campaign would tell me that they are reaching out to “undecided voters.” In response, I would ask the Biden campaign to share whatever it is that they are smoking.
  • It’s time to cut the crap. The idea that there are Americans who know they’re going to vote, but don’t know who they’re going to vote for, 55 days before the election is utter fucking nonsense. There is no “swing voter” who is vacillating between candidates. The swing voter that candidates should focus on is the person who is still trying to figure out exactly how our endless complicated voting system works. The swing here is between voting and not voting, not between voting for Donald Trump and voting for Joe Biden.
  • So the Biden campaign set 18 million dollars on fire, and then sent me an email bragging about it. And they’re going to do this every single week until the election only with bigger dollar amounts.
  • And this is why turnout is low. Because elections cost billions of dollars, but almost all of that money is spent running broadcast TV ads that no one actually sees.
  • But here is the good news: for less than what the Biden campaign set on fire last week, VoteAmerica can proactively text 20 million unregistered voters in all 50 states, and help them register to vote.
  • I crunched the numbers last night: for $13 million dollars we could run the program I’ve always wanted to run, targeting 20 million people in all 50 states. Or we can run some TV ads.
  • This is not a hard decision.

This email is now 1800 words, so I’m going to stop typing now.

Our program is going to be great no matter what. We’re on track to run one of the largest, smartest, and cheapest voter turnout programs in America. But we can and should go bigger. We are leaving votes on the table for the dumbest reason of all: we don’t have enough money. Yet.

If you’re wondering if it’s time to donate, yes, yes it is. Here’s a link where you can donate:


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