Bringing voter registration into the digital age
The Voter Formation Project’s Tatenda Musapatike on the changing strategies and tactics in civic engagement work
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Every year, millions of Americans register to vote for the very first time. Sometimes, they register in person at a government office, and other times, they are reached by an on-the-ground organizing effort. With the COVID pandemic putting a halt to such efforts in 2020, campaigners had to get creative in how they reached and registered first-time voters. Tatenda Musapatike, founder of the Voter Formation Project, is an expert in the field of online voter registration and mobilization, and chatted with us about the changing landscape of voter registration - and how her organization is approaching the work.
Q&A with Tatenda Musapatike, Voter Formation Project
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics & advocacy?
Tatenda Musapatike: I came to DC for grad school, and I really wanted to be a lobbyist. But I did an internship that kind of changed everything for me. I interned at (progressive digital firm) Revolution Messaging way back in 2010. I was one of their first interns and learned a lot about digital communication - I was completely fascinated by how you could use the internet to reach different people about things that impact their lives and get them to actually care. Since then, I just kept building on my interests and wanting to learn more about different facets of the industry. It's been a wild ride for sure.
Campaigner: You ended up going to work at Facebook and later ACRONYM, where you really zeroed in on voter registration and mobilization work. Last year, you founded the Voter Formation Project. In a nutshell, what’s VFP’s mission and focus?
Tatenda Musapatike: The Voter Formation Project is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing participation in local, state, & national elections through digital communication, experimentation, & knowledge sharing.
Campaigner: What’s the current state of voter registration? How, when, and where do the majority of voters get registered?
Tatenda Musapatike: That's such a big question. For starters, I would say a lot of voter registration efforts are done by groups within the 501(c3) or 501(c4) nonprofit/charity space. Many political campaigns will also do voter registration - especially on the Left - but when campaigns are doing voter registration, they're not necessarily thinking about it from the overall lens of civic participation and duty. Instead, they're often thinking about voter registration from the perspective of needing to get their candidate to 50% plus one vote. I'm not knocking that - that is a perfectly valid thing to do when your job is to win elections. However for me, and how I came to this work, is that candidates always disappoint me when they become elected or when they lose. I just am always disappointed. (laughs) And so going the candidate route was just not motivating for me and what I'm looking for in terms of impact.
On the other hand, there are a lot of nonprofit organizations that invest a lot of time, effort, and money into doing voter registration for the sake of civic engagement and participation. With those groups, you see predominantly two methods of voter registration: One is “field,” which means in-person communication and organizing, and the other would be through direct mail. Those are the traditional, tried-and-true methods of voter registration. Those are the types of tactics where we have a lot of measurement tools to understand that if I spend X dollars, I'm going to get this many voters registered.
Campaigner: And particularly over the past few years during COVID, we saw some major issues with the in-person stuff, right?
Tatenda Musapatike: Right. COVID was a very atypical campaigning condition that changed things for a lot of people. There is increasingly (but not as much as I would hope) more investments in doing online voter registration, which is really hard.
Campaigner: People sign up for things online every day. What makes online voter registration so hard?
Tatenda Musapatike: It’s mostly hard because state government infrastructure (i.e. each state’s websites) for doing voter registration is bad. The public sector has not caught up to the private sector in terms of digital security, ease of use, privacy… all of those things. You find state government websites are super janky. They're not mobile optimized. People have a hard time using them. You have to do security checks usually by showing or sending a driver's license or some kind of ID, which can be difficult for many people. These extra steps also make it harder for us to track the efficacy of online voter registration - but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it.
That's why at Voter Formation Project we’re not only doing the work, but we’re also measuring the outputs and being very transparent about it. We’re talking openly about how much it costs to do this work and what we see in the landscape because we have no fear of being very truthful and blunt about these things.
What are the main methods that your team uses for online voter registration? It's advertising on places like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat?
Tatenda Musapatike: All of the above. We really try to test them all. I don't know if you remember that time we got kicked off TikTok, but I think we're back (laughs). We're testing as many things as we can - I'm excited for the team thinking about how can we figure out what we can do on Twitch? Can we do anything organically on Discord? How can we think about reaching and registering gamers? How can we think about TikTok? What is new out there? There's even this new platform called “Be Real.” Let's do it.
So trying to test all the different social platforms, and then we're also going to double down on thinking about influencers and how to strategically work with them. I think there's a lot of fanfare, rightfully so, about influencers, but something to remember is that the commercial sector has been doing influencer marketing for a long time. We should be thinking about how we can kind of take it to the next level and consider what are the better ways to engage with influencers and build those relationships over time.
Campaigner: With voting rights under attack in so many places, do you think voter registration and civic participation work has become seen as partisan?
Tatenda Musapatike: I don't think that civic engagement should be a partisan issue whatsoever, but it has become one, in that we have so many forces saying all these bad things about civic engagement - that you can’t trust the process, you can't trust your institutions. But for some reason, people who are pro-democracy have not done any serious kind of sustained online work to have constant pro-voting marketing, essentially focused on democratic ideals.
That is what we are focused on raising for and trying to measure, to bring to the online voter registration space. We want to find out what is the impact of pro-civic engagement, pro-democracy, pro-voting content on voter registration and mobilization programs for low-turnout communities.
Campaigner: What have been some of your proudest accomplishments or favorite learnings so far in this work?
Tatenda Musapatike: My proudest moment is in founding an organization - it’s not for the weak and running programs at scale was like a huge thing for me. I would say I have several favorite or most enlightening learnings we’ve found at VFP.
First, we recently have done a lot of work to understand how and why we weren't seeing online voter registration “conversions” at the same rate as we had in previous times… and we basically found that because Apple instituted security measures that would not allow for third party apps to get conversion data on people who opted into their privacy measures, the algorithms just weren't delivering the ads. That was a huge thing for online marketing at large, I was shocked at the volume of press attention, and I was even more shocked at the volume of commercial marketers who were in my inbox telling me, “thank you so much, I've been wondering what's happening.”
That was huge - finding something in the weeds that hasn't gotten enough attention, that's going to dramatically impact everyone's online programs in the upcoming two years. That's going to change how we do our work.
I think the other biggest thing I'm proud of is just the level of transparency that came out of the ACRONYM voter registration and mobilization program that I ran in 2020. I don't think anyone has as comprehensively broken down what they did for online voter registration: why they made the choices they made, explaining the “why” behind them, and then been so thorough with costs and returns. It should be the model of how this work is performed, especially on the civic engagement side, where our mission is not candidate or profit-driven, but is to expand the electorate and help others learn.
We should be able to take more risks in this space. We should be able to be more transparent and have more deliberate measurement strategies for what we're doing. So I’m just hoping to see more groups take that approach to how they report on their work. I feel like I'm a leader in that case - everyone follow me, release everything. (laughs)
Campaigner: You've taken the step from practitioner and staffer to founder of your own organization. What's that experience been like, and what's your advice for other folks that have an idea to start something and want to follow in your footsteps?
Tatenda Musapatike: It’s been weird. I cannot describe the varied things that you do as a founder. One day, you can be on a high and talk to a multi-billionaire family and get them to trust you and build that relationship. And then the next day you can spend three hours looking for a password to the YouTube channel that your team needs.
Just the combination of skills you need to figure it out is wild. On one hand, I know how I did it, but to be honest, I also don't know how I did it, If that makes sense. I think in order for someone to be a founder, it takes a level of bravery. Frankly, I've had a lot of access to privilege, and I think I was able to find people throughout my career who were supporters of me as a person who were willing to financially support my dreams when I came asking for that first $15,000 check.
So I would say make friends and connections with wealthy people first, if you can, (laughs) whether that is with foundations or individuals, - just have a plan to find that first bit of capital. I wouldn't say just quit your job and go. For Voter Formation Project, I had been thinking about this for a while and I kept it to myself. I made business plans. On the low I was thinking about how to execute and then went for it.
The other big thing that I would say is that when founding an organization, I cannot stress how much easier it makes it for you if one of your first two hires is an operations person. Someone who's going to be very deliberate about the growth and the treatment of your employees who shares your vision for the organization and who has the skills to help build that out.
“When founding an organization, I cannot stress how much easier it makes for you if one of your first hires is an operations person.”
The second hire I made was our Director of People and Culture. And I think that was the smartest thing I ever did. It made growing my organization easier. It made having a partner in my vision for how people are going to work a lot easier. I still had to spend way too much time on the phone with various banks and healthcare people, but then I spent less.
Campaigner: Is there anything else that you want to share?
Tatenda Musapatike: Just if people want to support our work, they can go to www.voterformationproject.org
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These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media.