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Can Sean Parker's Brigade App Send More Voters to the Polls? San Francisco Provides Early Test.

Twenty questions to help find the right candidate for you.

Andrew Noyes / Brigade

Can the same mobile technology used to hail a ride, order a meal or arrange a hook-up help people become more politically engaged?

One early indication comes today, as voters in San Francisco head to the polls to cast ballots in the city’s mayoral race and decide such controversial measures as whether to limit the availability of short-term rentals offered through companies such as Airbnb or impose a new housing moratorium in the Mission district.

Voters in the Bay Area and in Manchester, N.H., had access to an interactive ballot guide within Brigade’s social media app for politics. The guides are pilot programs that put to the test Brigade Media’s theories about how social networks and smartphones can be harnessed to improve civic participation.

“We’re trying to take advantage of what technology provides today to reimagine civic engagement,” said Brigade Media Chief Executive and co-founder Matt Mahan.

Facebook billionaire Sean Parker, Mahan and another senior executive from formed Brigade to tackle the problem of declining voter participation. Parker and other civic-minded tech backers — Chief Executive Marc Benioff and Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway — pledged $9.5 million last year to the startup, whose mission is to get people thinking and talking about important issues on a social network where they would maintain their civic identities (sort of a LinkedIn for politics).

Brigade Media

Brigade certainly isn’t the first to offer a voter’s guide. Apple’s App Store offers mobile voting apps from the Columbus Dispatch, a daily newspaper in Ohio, government entities including the Iowa secretary of state’s office, the city of Denver and the county of Galveston, Texas, and interest groups like the American Family Association.

What differentiates the Brigade app is its game-inspired approach and its hooks to a broader online community of people who use the app to talk about local and national issues the way neighbors once did through civic groups, community centers or places of worship.

The ballot guide makes recommendations on candidates and referenda, based on the voter’s responses to 20 simply phrased questions (Should short-term rentals in San Francisco be limited to 75 nights per year — yes or no?). Brigade generates a personalized list of candidates most closely aligned with the voter’s expressed views — along with local organizations that offered endorsements, and why.

Brigade Media

In the case of ballot initiatives, voters can read the opposing views. Undecided about a particular issue? The app presents easily digestible arguments for and against, which were written in partnership with the San Francisco Chronicle’s journalists.

The experience is a breezy, well-synthesized alternative to the shut-up-and-eat-your-broccoli approach of San Francisco’s 200-page printed voter’s guide that even the most devoted political junkie would find daunting. Its social networking component allows the user to publicly pledge support for a candidate or cause and recruit others.

“When we built this product, we wanted it to be something that met people where they were,” said Brigade Media President James Windon. “Take the political heavy lifting around endorsements, take that out of it, and make the experience pretty approachable and enjoyable. Get close to ‘This is something I want to participate in.’”

This approach is connecting with 18- to 34-year-olds, who account for nearly 60 percent of Brigade’s early adopters.

Brigade’s ambitions are huge: To fix what’s broken about our democracy, where voter turnout during last year’s midterm election hit a 72-year low, dissatisfaction with Congress is approaching record highs and public trust in government is on the wane.

“Our belief is that our political system has stopped working for ordinary people,” said Mahan. “People are opting out of the political system. No one thinks it’s a good investment in their time and energy.”

It remains to be seen whether an app can provide an antidote to voter apathy.

Mahan argued, in an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle, that voters — especially millennials — have well-formed opinions on issues such as whether Airbnb should be regulated and a desire for civic engagement, but they don’t know how to make their voices heard — or believe their votes count.

Brigade worked to raise awareness of the ballot guide, holding a series of “Coffee Talk” sessions in the San Francisco coffeehouse chain Philz Coffee, with Chronicle Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper and columnist C.W. Nevius moderating discussions.

The San Francisco and Manchester Ballot Guide experiments will inform Brigade’s strategy for building election tools in more cities and states ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Once the results are in, Brigade will determine what percentage of the app’s users in both cities took advantage of the Ballot Guide and went so far as to pledge support for candidates or ballot measures or even recruit friends to do the same.

Brigade will evaluate whether the notifications users received that their friends were voting incentivized them to head to the polls on Election Day, as well. Civic engagement broadly, and voting specifically, becomes more meaningful for people when there is a perceived benefit to participation and a social cost to sitting on the sidelines, noted a spokesman.

“For a healthy democracy, it’s important that we have a lot of people engaged in dialog and getting involved in the national discourse,” said Windon. “As a social media company, the single most valuable thing we can do is to be this very large funnel for helping people start to connect with political discourse, and having them participate.”

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