These NYU Graduates Created An App That Helps You Win At Voting & Get Free Stuff

A lot is on the line with this year’s midterm election. 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with one-third of the U.S. senate and 36 state governors. 

In short, the votes that are made and not made this year, are critical to the future of our country’s democracy.  

But even with such urgency surrounding this election cycle, young people are statistically the least likely to show up and vote. 80 percent sat out the last midterm election and roughly half showed up for the 2016 presidential election.  

So in an attempt to spark change, and fueled by the lack of voter turnout in previous elections, a group of New York University graduate students decided to try something new- add incentives to get young people to vote.

MOTIVOTE, a web-based tool that uses social accountability and gamification to help voters get to the polls, was founded by Emily Graham, Jess Riegel and Rachel Konowitz. 

“We came together to think through how we could develop an innovative solution to a pressing social challenge,” Graham, who serves as chief strategy officer said. “It was early 2017, and all of us were in the thick of political activism, but we also knew that all of this work would be for naught if this new generation of activists didn't actually turn out and vote. So we wanted to bridge the gap between intention passion and action.”

Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of young voters, the three founders concluded two key barriers were holding young people back from voting. The first were structural and included voter ID laws, a lack of same-day voter registration and a lack of early voting. The second included behavioral microbarriers that included people forgetting to mail in their absentee ballot, thinking their single vote does not matter or choosing not to vote because they did not know enough. So, MOTIVOTE set out to change that. "We're focused on alleviating the tiny, mental hurdles that hold people back so they follow through," Graham said. 

“It was early 2017, and all of us were in the thick of political activism, but we also knew that all of this work would be for naught if this new generation of activists didn't actually turn out and vote. So we wanted to bridge the gap between intention passion and action.”

Keeping their millennial demographic in mind, MOTIVOTE was designed to be simple and user-friendly with three easy steps. 

Step one is a commitment to showing up to vote. Users along with their friends register through the MOTIVOTE website and make a pledge that they will vote in the upcoming election. 

If they’re feeling extra confident, they can back up their commitment with a monetary pledge to raise the stakes for their friends and encourage them to vote as well. Users are only charged their pledge, if one or more members of their team does not vote. 

Step two is called the nudge. 

“We did a deep, months-long dive into behavioral science, and still count a behavioral economist as one of our advisors, to figure out what gets people to vote,” Graham said. “The single-most effective way of getting someone to vote is to have a friend remind them to do so, so friends nudge each other to vote, but then we also give players this curated roadmap of bite-sized actions that they can take to get ready to vote. Things like making a voting plan or viewing a sample ballot. “

Players can then take these actions to earn points each week that get them entered into raffles that include prizes like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, custom designs from Etsy stores and gift certificates to workout classes. “We've found that companies are more than happy to sponsor us because our work is non-partisan, and who can't get behind increasing voter turnout,” Graham said. 

Step three is where the action takes place. Users confirm their vote by taking a selfie outside their polling place or a selfie with their absentee ballot and upload it to the site. Teams win when everyone on their team votes, and if someone on the team does not vote, everyone else is notified. “That's super effective, because people don't want to be socially shamed for doing something that is seen as desirable,” Graham said. 

MOTIVOTE'S use of technology, and meeting their target demographic where they are and with what they want is what sets them apart. "What's great is that though no one has really done this with voting before," Graham said. "We know that technology does a really good job of helping people through on intentions they set. For everything from losing weight to exercising to saving for retirement to quitting smoking, social accountability and rewards are proven to increase the likelihood of meeting your goals."

MOTIVOTE’S goal is to keep young people politically engaged and active long beyond a single election cycle. And even with the newfound excitement around this year's midterm, Graham along with her co-founders Konowitz and Riegel are still unsure of just how many people will vote, but they are hopeful that what they have created, will be a catalyst for voters who are apprehensive or complacent. 

"We also want our users to come back. Sometimes people talk about the midterms as if they're the culmination of this massive movement, or the be all end all," Graham said. "But we really see them as the start and we want our users to vote in every election, up and down the ballot, which means encouraging them to form teams in 2019 races and beyond."

With over 1,000 registered users, MOTIVOTE'S goal is to have 10,000 before the midterm election. With this number they will be able to measure how effective their site is and provide a better scale for growth, in hopes for becoming the next logical step for voters once they register.

And while there is no one specific reason for why young people are not turning out to vote, MOTIVOTE'S new and innovative ways to encourage young people to exercise their right to vote is a step in the right direction for the future of our country's democracy. 

"Our democracy only works if everyone participates in it," Graham said. "If young people don't vote, their elected officials aren't going to advocate for the issues and policy positions they care most about. If young people turned out to vote, our elected officials would have no choice but to listen to us."

For more information on how to join MOTIVOTE you can visit their website here. And if you're interested in starting your own team you can reach out to Emily Graham at [email protected]