The day after Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, we learned that his campaign had raised an eye-opening $70 million through the course of the week. We found out that there were 122 million convention watchers and that 1.1 million people had joined the Biden text messaging program.
But we should also be paying attention to the fact that the convention convinced more than 700,000 people to use IWillVote.com. This past week, site traffic spiked even higher than it did on Election Day 2018.
In a year in which everyone’s voting routines will be disrupted, where the situation on the ground might change without warning in any community anywhere, IWillVote.com — which allows voters to check their registration, learn details about absentee and in-person voting in their state, or speak directly to voter protection experts through a hotline — is an essential resource.
But it’s not a tool the Biden campaign created to confront the unique challenges of 2020. It’s a nearly-seven-year-old project of the Democratic National Committee, and its enduring success demonstrates a small part of the future for the national party as an electoral instrument.
After President Obama won in 2012, the DNC inherited a number of assets from his campaign — including the code base and research from GottaVote.com, the hub that Obama for America built to support its voter registration efforts. The DNC used that foundation to build IWillVote.com for the 2014 midterm election.
I was part of that team, and at the time, we made a couple of deliberate choices, which connect that version of the site directly to the one in use today.
- First, we picked an intentionally evergreen name. We didn’t put 2014 in the URL. We didn’t include a timely reference to the midterm election or anything that would have crystallized the site at a moment in time.
- Second, we made the decision to avoid explicitly-partisan brand elements in the visual identity for the site. There’s no DNC logo, for instance. The first iteration we built didn’t even feature the color blue. Operationally, we knew that voters wouldn’t trust the site more because of a direct connection to the Democratic Party — and for some of those we needed to reach most, the association might actually hurt us.
- Finally, the whole thing was designed to be extensible. We wanted the site to be just as meaningful and shareable for an activist as it was for a candidate. In 2014, we even built the polling place lookup feature so that anyone—from other Democratic campaigns to allied groups — could embed the tool directly on their own sites.
And those choices paid off.
In 2016, Hillary for America decided to use IWillVote.com as the voter support hub for the campaign. The branding got a quick polish. The tech was updated. The voting information was refreshed. And off we went.
In 2018, the party updated things again for the midterm election, then did so again at the start of the presidential primary.
Now, we’ve had four consecutive, national campaigns where voters have been told to use IWillVote.com to find all the information they need to cast their ballots. For six years, candidates and organizers have been sharing the same URL in their work. Through all that time, the site has been just as usable for a field staffer working on legislative races outside the national spotlight as it is for a presidential campaign team in the most tightly contested battleground state.
Today, IWillVote.com is a permanent part of the infrastructure the Democratic National Committee delivers on a perpetual basis. And that responsibility is one that should define the institution’s future going forward.
There’s a role, of course, for immediate, short-term spending — money that goes to advertising and canvassers in the build-up to an election. There’s an administrative function the national committee must play — setting the rules for future primaries and party gatherings.
But we ought to be more clear-eyed about the value of structural investments and long-term thinking.
There’s no other institution in the progressive movement as well-positioned to maintain a resource like IWillVote.com. Individual campaigns are designed to close down after a single election. Other progressive groups and Democratic committees necessarily have a focus more narrow in scope. And there’s just no profit-margin in it for some vendor to maintain a polling place lookup tool. So it’s up the DNC.
And you could make similar arguments for the national voter file, the candidate backgrounds compiled and maintained by the DNC’s research team, and any number of organizing tools, electoral modeling, and activations systems for networks of volunteers.
More broadly, while we’re talking about a political party and how it supports its constituencies in a national election, that same acknowledgment of the value of structural thinking could hold true for all kinds of institutions in 2020. In our distributed age, building systems that benefit an entire network of affiliates can produce underappreciated results for organizations in all kinds of different fields.
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