It seems like at the beginning of every election cycle, I find myself having the same conversation with experienced technologists who are new to politics.
It starts with their own, often brief, interactions with campaigns, often volunteering. In those interactions, they see technology or processes they believe they can update or make better. It’s an admirable goal, but one that often comes with the tech world’s desire to move fast and break things, to act first and ask questions later. And it’s based on very little understanding of how campaigns work or why decisions have been made.
So these folks with a lot of technology experience, but not a lot of political experience go back to what they know, and they build something. And as they’re building, many of them think about how best to monetize the thing they’ve built, which means focusing more on volume and bigger reach, ultimately sidelining and sacrificing the values and goals that their political clients are working so hard to fight for. And while there’s a lot of political activity out there, Democratic and Republican campaigns don’t have the same needs because they don’t have the same goals.
I can’t speak of others in the political space, but I know that as the CTO of a Democratic organization, my motivation at work comes from the mission of my organization. I work hard because I share the values of my organization and my party, and I want to ensure that I’m working with political technology vendors who do the same.
That practice requires some definition. What exactly is political technology? There’s obviously no precise rule, but for me, that means a tool that only has utility as part of an electoral campaign or if it interacts with something politically sensitive and proprietary, like voter-file data. In practice, that means voter management tools, fundraising and compliance systems that only serve the political market, and anything for which the overwhelming majority of the market the vendor is selling to is electoral politics.
Why is mission alignment so important? Simple: the products themselves are niche, so any benefit that increases the effectiveness of the product benefits the users of the product. Often we find ourselves working so closely with our vendors that they become almost like an extension of our core team. I want to know that my team is with us, dedicated to the same goal of winning the elections we’re working on.
It’s also worth noting that in some cases, some of the new vendors aren’t actually just competing with the existing software vendors in the space — they’re competing with the party itself. One such vendor (who shall remain nameless) was offering a voter file with their software as a direct product competition to the combined file provided by the DNC, and in so, undermined the electoral goals of the very campaigns they claimed to support.
Having as many campaigns as possible using a common set of tools with common data, enriches the entire ecosystem and allows candidates up and down the spectrum to build on both the data and the technological advances made by allied partners and campaigns. These things simply aren’t possible when everyone is building their own system instead of working together. It also means that staff trained during one Democratic campaign can easily get up and running when they inevitably move to the next campaign.
That isn’t to say there isn’t space for technology that isn’t specifically partisan. We use many non-partisan tools, from Google to Microsoft to Apple to Amazon. They sell to everybody, and we have no expectation that they’d ever declare themselves to be partisan. But they’re also not selling voter-file management or campaign finance software.
Some vendors don’t understand this practice, and they push back hard. But the reality is, my goal isn’t their goal. Their goal is to build a product, my goal is to win elections. I want to make sure that my vendors share my goal as closely as possible. And yes, I will acknowledge that I want to use their technology to win — and to beat the other side.
When folks unfamiliar with the political technology space attempt to enter it, they frequently mistake both the nature of the market — a Democratic market and a separate Republican market — and they frequently mistake what are often political challenges for technology challenges. Mix both of these misunderstood things together, and we find ourselves having this conversation about the partisanship of technology over and over.
If you’re building a partisan product, you should be partisan. I want you on my team, and I want to make sure that our good work isn’t used to empower those that would do harm. Politics isn’t a game. People’s lives and the direction of our country is on the line.
Mike Sager is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) for EMILY’s List, overseeing cybersecurity, technology infrastructure, and data and software development. He has worked in the Democratic political technology space for over 15 years, including for the DNC, AFL-CIO, and NGP VAN.