November 15, 2012

Open-Source Advocacy Proves Its Value in 2012 Elections

The turnout of young voters has been one of the most impressive highlights of the 2012 election. Nearly 20 percent of the people who voted this year were under 30, and that is in large part because so many nonprofits did a great job of registering and involving young people.

Nonprofit groups faced some daunting challenges heading into the 2012 election. New voter-identification laws, reduced early voting in some swing states, and other new measures meant that organizations had more work to do than ever. Yet the bad economy and other strains meant that many nonprofits had less money and fewer staff members than they needed.

With budgets constrained, organizations worked together, shared resources, used technology, created shareable technological and strategic platforms, and empowered their constituencies to do their own thing. Together these strategies are called “open-source organizing”. 

Open source is a term first used to describe software, meaning both its free redistribution and the practice of making it easy for anyone to change a product’s design and use. Open-source organizing meant youth groups were able to do more with less.

Consider a quintessential approach to spreading democracy: Rock the Vote’s online voter-registration tool. When Rock the Vote helped pioneer online voter registration, it could have easily built a Web site and encouraged everyone in the country to link to it. But instead, it built a free widget that any nonprofit in the country could embed on its own site, so visitors could register to vote without leaving the site.

This past election, Rock the Vote went even further. It created an open-source voter-registration tool that organizations could customize by adding their own branding, language, and style. That made more organizations comfortable using it and led to more than a million people using Rock the Vote’s technology to register 2012.

“Technology alone doesn’t organize a voter; it must be promoted and made accessible to young and traditionally disenfranchised audiences,” says Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote. “So we have made the online voter-registration tool free, customizable, and open-sourced for any organization or individual that wants to register and engage their constituents.”

Inspired by Rock the Vote’s example, my organization—the Bus Federation, a youth-advocacy group—set out with the League of Young Voters Education Fund to reinvent voter education.

We created a tool that allowed any individual or organization in the country to create its own voter guide with its own stances on any ballot measure in the country at November6th.org. (Candidate endorsements are allowed on TheBallot.org, a spinoff of the project that is classified as an advocacy group and allowed to do more political work.) Beyond that, we made the site easy for other groups to embed on their Web sites.

Open-source organizing doesn’t need to be technology-focused. The principles can be used in other ways. One example is an idea we came up with called National Voter Registration Day.

We decided that no organization should own that brand, that any organization could use it. For that reason, thousands of organizations all across the country carried out the idea each in its own way, while election administrators, musicians, actors, businesses, the media, and even political campaigns took action in ways that made sense for their own missions. The result blew away even our most optimistic goals by generating hundreds of thousands of voter registrations.

Following an open-source approach won’t solve every problem. Nonprofits need money and other resources to succeed, especially because the only way to keep Americans involved in democracy is to work at it every day, not just near election times.

National Voter Registration Day was successful because of the established groups—thousands of homegrown organizations across the country—that worked on the effort. November6th.org relies on leading local thinkers for content. Not everything can or should take an open-source approach.

But if we learn from the successes of this past election, we can make sure the youth vote doesn’t drop off significantly in mid-term years as it usually does. To turn that around, we need to work together. Our next challenge begins now.


Matt Singer is executive director of the Bus Federation Civic Fund and a co-founder of National Voter Registration Day.