Jonathan Zucker wants to make it clear that he’s not trying to bribe Congress.
Reward lawmakers for voting a certain way? Sure. But bribery?
“We’re not even close to bribery,” Zucker says.
It’s a technical distinction — and it may end up being too clever for federal election officials — but it’s one that could be very important for Zucker, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance attorney who has made a quietly lucrative career out of finding new ways to raise money online for political candidates.
Zucker’s new website If.Then.Fund — which allows people to give small donations to any lawmaker who votes a certain way on a bill — is an unexpected new idea for combating the influence of big-money donations in Washington.
“It’s about keeping people you want to keep in Congress and getting rid of the ones you don’t want,” Zucker says.
“It’s not really about the individual votes. It’s not like we want the American people to influence the Senate on whether they approve the Attorney General nominee,” he says. “It’s about average Americans using their dollars in the aggregate — this is crowdfunding — to change who is in Congress through campaign finance.”
Zucker is among a small community of D.C.-based consultants who are using sometimes-old technologies in new ways to help candidates raise money and get elected. It’s a different kind of innovation in the tech world, since there’s nothing particularly new about much of the technology that’s being used.
Email acquisition, direct marketing to consumers and geo-targeted ads are things that consumer products marketers use all the time. What is different about political technology, however, is that when it comes time to seal the deal — getting money from a donor — federal and state campaign finance rules must be followed.
That’s where Zucker, a pony-tailed, yoga-loving, live-theater aficionado, comes in.
Unlikely path into fundraising
Zucker, 43, is walking slowly on a new treadmill desk that was recently installed in the corner of the living room in his two-bedroom apartment in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Washington, near Howard University, the historically black college. He’s still recuperating from surgery to repair two herniated disks in his back that he thinks probably got injured because he wasn’t doing his yoga headstands correctly.
He runs his online campaign finance business facing away from a fourth-story view of the D.C. skyline, favoring instead a view encompassing his living room, complete with a six-foot-high climbing tower for his two Russian Blue cats, Alexei and Anastasia, and an extensive collection of Star Wars Lego models he’s assembled. There’s a Millennium Falcon atop his granite kitchen island, and a Super Star Destroyer on a sideboard. Nearby, vintage posters from a local theater where he often does lighting design for plays are stacked on a desk, waiting to be framed.
He is not what comes to mind when you envision a campaign finance attorney with a political science degree from Yale and a law degree from Georgetown University.
“Everything about Jonathan is surprising,” says Nathan Daschle, the son of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the co-founder of Ruck.us, a DIY campaign website builder. “You say, ‘I’m going to bring in this Yale and Georgetown grad from the DNC,’ and then Jonathan comes up on his bike. It’s not at all what you’ve pictured.”
Zucker’s current career isn’t what he pictured himself doing when he came to D.C. after graduating from Yale. He grew up in St. Louis, and after college he landed an entry-level job at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which was then at the height of its popularity, thanks in large part to President Clinton’s embrace of its centrist ideas for the Democratic party.
He worked in the DLC’s fundraising department, tinkering with the organization’s proprietary database of donors. He left after a few years to go to law school part-time at Georgetown, while also working as a field organizer for several queer-rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign.
After graduating from Georgetown in 2000, he began an organization called the “Allies Project,” which was designed to get heterosexual people involved with queer rights. But funding for the project fell apart after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and donations dried up.
Democracy for all
Thus began Zucker’s career in campaign finance. Mostly because a job in the finance department at the Democratic National Committee in 2003 “fell in my lap,” Zucker says, thanks to a friend who was working there. A few years later, he left and joined ActBlue, a then-new Democratic fundraising site which had just begun to make it easier for people to make small-dollar donations to candidates.
“I thought it was brilliant,” he says. He stayed at the fundraising site for the next four years, as it expanded to allow donations in all 50 states and became a major powerhouse in Democratic fundraising.
Zucker eventually became the site’s executive director, and wrote many of the briefs approved by the Federal Election Commission that paved the way for ActBlue’s donation system, which fundamentally changed how candidates raise money.
ActBlue has helped candidates raise $739 million since its inception in 2004. It basically streamlined the campaign finance reporting process for candidates — something that ActBlue took care of — and made it easy for them to raise small amounts of money from supporters. Such donations have become increasingly important for candidates — particularly Democrats who don’t attract deep-pocketed supporters — as the courts have made it easier for companies and individuals to funnel millions of dollars into the campaign system through Super PACs.
Zucker left at the end of 2008 because, he says, he wanted to build a nonpartisan site that would make it easier for any candidate to raise money online. ActBlue declined to comment on Zucker, other than offering a statement that, “as an innovator in the digital space with 10 years of experience and counting, ActBlue welcomes any and all efforts to get small donors engaged in the political process.”
Zucker quickly launched Democracy Engine, which offers basically the same service as ActBlue — a streamlined process for collecting small-dollar donations — but can be used by candidates of either party as well as nonprofits.
Zucker began the company in 2009, selling his D.C. condo to help get the company off the ground. It runs in the background, essentially acting as a payments processor for companies including NationBuilder and Salsa Labs, which build campaign and nonprofit fundraising sites, respectively. It’s also built into Crowdpac, the nonpartisan campaign data site for users who want to donate to listed candidates. It collects payment either through licensing fees or through a small cut from every transaction it processes.
The company is still tiny compared to ActBlue. While it’s a private company, Zucker says it collected about $29.8 million in 2014 for candidates and nonprofit clients. By comparison, Democratic candidates raised $67 million in 2014 using ActBlue, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. (Update: Candidates raised $237 million on ActBlue in 2014, a spokesman said, noting the federal figures don’t include all donations made via the site.)
Zucker’s nonpartisan approach doesn’t always sit well with some Democrats, who think they should try to use any technological advantages they have over Republicans.
“He’s always taken the opposite stance of ActBlue. There is no front end for Democracy Engine. It’s a service,” says Dave Leichtman, a Virginia-based campaign tech executive and former vice president of client services at Salsa Labs, a Democracy Engine client.
“He wants his technology to be nonpartisan even if he is a Democrat,” Leichtman says of Zucker.
If then, what?
Our top-line goal is shifting the balance of power from those who have a lot of money to those who have a lot less,” says Joshua Tauberer, who co-founded If.Then.Fund with Zucker last year, after talking about the idea for more than a year before that.
Tauberer, 33, a leader of Washington’s “open gov” community, is a “civic hacker” who for the past 11 years has been operating a site, GovTrack.us, which makes it easier to track and understand legislation moving through Congress.
He began tinkering with the idea while he was an undergrad studying psychology at Princeton University, and kept refining it as he continued to get a masters and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. The site continues to be a well-used resource by bloggers, journalists, lobbyists and anyone else trying to figure out what Congress is up to.
“I’ve been coding my whole life,” says Tauberer, who got his start at age 7 at home in Long Island, NY, thanks to his dad, a civil engineer. Tauberer built the If.Then.Fund site and has been manually adding legislation to it, while working on automating the process so users can eventually pick bills to back themselves.
If.Then.Fund is a low-budget operation. It’s not exactly a hobby for Zucker or Tauberer, but it’s not paying the bills, either.
The pair figure they’ve probably spent about $10,000 on the site so far, and about two-thirds of that was setting up the company legally and for a 15-page legal brief detailing why the site isn’t running afoul of federal bribery or anti-corruption laws.
“It took awhile to do the research to figure out exactly how to make it work without violating anti-corruption laws,” Zucker says. “There are certainly some things we considered, but discarded because they skirted too close to the line.”
When someone makes a donation at If.Then.Fun, the money is divvied up among all members who voted the way the donor wanted. That could mean that 45 senators get 22 cents from someone’s $10 donation. That amount seems ridiculously small, but the idea is that enough people will pledge donations that the total amounts will be high enough to make lawmakers eventually take note.
The site launched in February, and it has been off to a slow start. Only $60 was pledged on an April Senate vote for confirming Loretta Lynch as the U.S. Attorney General. The most popular vote on the site — another bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act — has attracted $3,100 from 224 donors.
However, there has been no marketing budget so far, and Zucker and Tauberer have mostly been relying on word of mouth to get people to the site. They got both the the New York Times and the Washington Post to write about the site because Tauberer personally knows the reporters thanks to his open-government work.
They’re putting together a “small round” of investments to start a marketing campaign soon.
“We have a great idea … we’ve got a proof of concept that it works,” Zucker says. “We’re just looking for a new way to get people engaged. It’s clearly new, it’s novel.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.