Debra Cleaver, Founder Of Vote.org, Is Making Women's History Now
There are a few traditional ways to celebrate Women's History Month: look at women who've been under-appreciated or sidelined completely by the history books; read the work of female historians; or spend the entire four weeks dressing up as Marie Curie and pretending to be radioactive. Bustle, however, is doing something a little different this year: this month, we're also spotlighting women who are making history now. Female history-makers are in force across America in 2017, and when we look back on this period in 50 or 100 years, they're going to be the names we remember. History is a constant human process, after all, and it's not in the sole hands of kings and Presidents. (And thank heaven for that.)
History-making also isn't just in the hands of the Beyonces, the Elizabeth Warrens, and other folks who work on a highly public level of recognition. There are plenty of women who are changing America — and the course of human history — right now, but whose names might not be instantly recognizable to you.
Debra Cleaver is one of these women. Cleaver, the founder of Vote.org, a hugely influential, non-partisan voter registration and turnout organization, is one of the women making history right now. Specifically, Vote.org is changing the way we vote, reaching unprecedented numbers of people across the US to encourage not only registration, but actually going to the polls, too. Cleaver talked to Bustle about what it took to get to this point, what Vote.org does and how it does it so well, and what you need to change history in America right now (some optimism, mostly).
How To Become A Change-Maker: Don't Plan It
Perhaps uniquely among voting and policy wonks with her range of influence, Cleaver didn't come to create Vote.org out of a lifelong passion for politics. "I did not have ambitions to do this growing up," she told Bustle. "I was not a political science major or a philosophy major." In fact, it took one moment in American political history to energize her. "I first became politicized during the 2000 election, specifically election night, when Florida first went to Gore and then went to Bush. In the process of digging into that over the next few months, it seemed that it came down to 500 votes in a single county in America and obviously no election should ever be that close."
From there, her path to Vote.org has been interesting and slightly zigzagging. "In 2004," she said, "I worked on a project called Swing The State that a friend had started. People would register with us online and we would send them into swing states to do voter registration. We were part of a nationwide effort to register the bejesus out of everyone." Then, in 2006, she realized that "I didn't think the US had a voter registration problem; I thought we had a voter turnout problem". At the time, she was working day jobs in technology, and working on politics as a side project. Her realization propelled a new idea, one that would eventually become Vote.org.
"I was hanging out with friends in Vegas," Cleaver notes, "and I realized that I wanted to start another election project that only involves us being online — I never want to carry a clipboard again — and I wanted to target an already-registered group of people that have some sort of roadblock that I could clear using the internet. And a friend of mine was like 'what about absentee voters?' And that's how Long Distance Voter was born."
Long Distance Voter was a web-based project based on the observation that absentee ballots across the US are often incredibly difficult to understand — and Cleaver founded it due to a fortuitous (well, kind of) circumstance. In late 2007, she moved to Los Angeles to work for Myspace, and "didn't have any friends, so I was like 'Great! I'm going to start a voting project.'" Long Distance Voter wasn't high budget or high tech; it was, she said, a "glorified wiki" with "zero dollars;" she and a bunch of volunteers called state departments, interviewed their offices on absentee ballot requirements, and put it all on the internet.
The response was astonishing. "We had half a million visitors by November 2008, with no advertising or marketing budget," Cleaver told us, still sounding slightly surprised. "We added more features, like voter registration information, along the way — in 2012 we registered 100,000 people without having a voter registration program."
At this point, I should note, voter registration was still just Cleaver's hobby, though it was beginning to dawn on her friends that perhaps it should be more than that. "It was probably after 2012 that people started sitting me down and saying 'If you can register 100,000 people without really focusing on it, what could you do if you focused on it?' I said, 'Probably register more.'"
The move to Vote.org provided that "more." Long Distance Voter won a Knight News Challenge in 2015 to get its "first real funding", in the words of Cleaver, and at that point she thought: "We'd outgrown Long Distance Voter. We're an authoritative source now; we need a new name." She managed to buy Vote.org off the man who had nabbed it in the early-web days of 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How Vote.org Is Changing The Country
Cleaver is the first to admit that Vote.org's 2016 was "phenomenal". "We had 6.5 million visitors, reached out to 3.9 million using text messages, we had people texting other people to get around opt-in laws, we registered around 600,000 people, we ran a giant Get Out The Vote drive. On Election Day, we provided polling place information to 981,000 people, which I think is probably the largest Election Day Get Out The Vote." And all this with only two permanent staff members and 100 contractors. "There might have been a few days last year when there were 105 people on payroll and I went 'well, this kind of got big,'" she told Bustle, but she kept focusing on the small stuff — "like cleaning the kitchen, because the kitchen was just a total nightmare."
What makes Vote.org special is its own particular viewpoint on the voter problem in America: that it's all about turnout. Considering the turnout of the 2016 election, which only involved perhaps around 58 percent of eligible voters in the US, this continues to be a massive political issue. "Vote.org is not a voter registration group; it's not enough to just register voters," Cleaver said. "Our only metric that we track is how many of our voters actually vote." So how do you do that? "We need to make voting a habit and not a hobby in this country, and what little research exists suggests that if you can get somebody to vote in a presidential election and then get them to vote again in the next midterm election, you don't need to continue to follow up again. We're looking for solutions that pay dividends over decades."
According to Cleaver, Vote.org is all about clearing roadblocks. "We're assuming that if you don't vote, it's because it's too hard for you to vote, and we're going to make it easier." Their primary arsenal is direct messaging: "We're trying literally telling people it's time to vote, approaching them with the assumption that somebody with authority can convey that." And other strategies work, too; Cleaver emphasizes the importance of social pressure — like "when you make people aware that all their friends or neighbors are voting or plan to vote."
What It Takes To Make History: Being A Passionate, Pragmatic Outsider
There are, Cleaver believes, certain personality advantages that help her succeed in her very particular area of activism. A colleague's take on her, she said, is that "I am the most ambitious person he knows in voting [and also] the most pragmatic. A lot of people in voting are pragmatic but we're missing wild ambition. I'm like, 'We can contact 20 million people, that sounds reasonable!'"
She also said her outsider status can give her perspective. "I can see issues that are coming that are still years out that other people don't necessarily see, and I'm not sure why. I'm not in DC so I'm not in that world, and I don't have the same professional background to the consultant class... Also I don't work on campaigns, so I have a very different longitudinal view of elections." But, she adds, "I've worked every day in 2016, so I haven't had a lot of time for self-reflection."
In fact, she said, her own personal view is secondary to the purpose. "There's so much work to do, and it's not about me at all, it's about larger patterns in American democracy."
The Next Step For Shifting American Democracy
So what's next for Cleaver and Vote.org? She might write a book in the future. In the meantime, however, Vote.org's challenges remain enormous. "We're trying to identify root causes for low voter turnout and address those, as opposed to putting bandaids on issues. And because we're non-partisan, this is all candidate-agnostic."
If you yourself want to create change, she said there's one guaranteed way to do it: vote local, and vote often. "The current ambition for Vote.org," she told Bustle, "is that there are about 40 million people who voted in 2016 who won't vote again in 2018 without intervention. That's a standard drop-off. We want to target people who voted for the very first time in 2016 election who are below a certain age, and then get them to vote again in the midterm election, with the goal of providing a new generation of good voters for whom voting is already a habit. There are 12-17 million who fit that, and we want to contact them about 4-5 times across different platforms." So keeping things small, then.
She also thinks we need to reinterpret the way we think about elections, away from the glamour of presidential elections and more towards local issues. "There's no magic candidate and there's no magic bullet," she said. "Over half a million elected officials exist in the US, we only ever talk about 2, and the majority of them are boring and uninspiring. People should vote because it's their civic duty, not because this one candidate is riding around on a unicorn and handing out kittens, which is pretty much what Obama was doing." She notes that Obama may have skewed a lot of first-time voters' perspectives because of his intense charisma, but that "you can't build democracy on these extremely charismatic candidates. People need to vote at every level of government."
And after a really bruising 2016 election cycle, the task is harder than ever. "I imagine that there is a crop of voters who are disillusioned," Cleaver said, "but we can't give up on them. We need to tell them to vote again and we probably need to convey how much more important other elections are, which is really lost in the dominant political conversation." Getting out the vote for 2018 is the next big thing, but getting voter turnout up inch by inch is what's energizing Cleaver for the future.
"I'm bizarrely optimistic about voting," she told Bustle. "I'm not an optimistic person, but when it comes to American democracy, totally optimistic."