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Tech Startup Tries to Boost Civic Engagement in California

The platform works by vetting registered voters and putting them in direct contact with candidates or representatives. It allows for communication outside of a city council meeting or a candidate forum.

(TNS) — For more than a month, Coronado, Calif., has been a testing ground for a tech company that wants to harness the Internet's power to promote civic engagement.

In March, the Solana Beach, Calif., software company Voterfied set up a "voting portal" where Coronado's registered voters can comment or vote on issues facing the city such as whether they support building more housing or a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers.

Whoever controls the portal — in this case Voterfied — can use the data to come up with policy decisions or gauge community interest in certain programs. Although the company is operating the portal for now, it hopes to sell it to cities one day.

"Our goal is to use technology to facilitate better civic engagement," said the company's founder Michael Allman. "We'd like to see the city adopt Voterfied."

Voterfied hasn't formally approached Coronado yet, he added.

When the company first launched, its focus was on marketing its software to political candidates and elected officials.

The platform works by vetting registered voters and putting them in direct contact with candidates of representatives. It allows for many-to-one communication without the confines of a City Council meeting or a candidate forum.

Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall used Voterfied during his 2018 reelection campaign and credits the platform for helping him get his message out.

"During the campaigns, you normally have interest groups giving you messages about what they think is important," Hall told the San Diego Union-Tribune in February. "The same people always show up at council meetings, and they obviously have legitimate concerns. But with any issue, there's always more than one side. It's important to know what the greater populace is thinking."

Now, Voterfied is using Coronado to test a proof of concept of whether its platform could also be marketed to municipal governments.

Early results suggest that the answer is yes.

More than 250 people have logged on to the Voter Portal in Coronado and, collectively, they've voted more than 1,000 times. Some members have also provided input to include more questions and polls on the portal.

"We've been surprised by how quickly it's taken off," Allman said.

For now, the company isn't making any money on its Coronado voter portal. But that could change if Voterfied can show cities there is value in their platform.

"It's a public service at this point," Allman said. "Down the road, this should be something that should be owned by the city. Our intention is to try to get the city to use this."

The experiment hasn't gone off without any hiccups.

Early on, Voterfied used an image of Coronado's flag and the city responded by promptly sending the company a cease and desist letter.

"These activities create a false impression that you are either associated with the City of have otherwise received some sort of endorsement from the City," the letter states.

Allman said the intention was not to deceive but rather make it clear to participants that their platform was meant to be exclusively about Coronado issues. Voterfied quickly removed images of the city's flag and replaced them with photos of a lifeguard tower.

The company initially chose Coronado as its first testing site because it is a small, tight-knit community with a lot of engaged and civic-minded residents, Allman said.

Although Coronado was the first, it won't be the last for Voterfied.

The company plans to expand to three additional cities in San Diego County next month. Specifically which ones, the company hasn't determined yet, Allman said.

"If we get a second and third city where we have a good response, that proves to us that there's a real need," Allman said.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.