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.