Q+A: Seth Flaxman & Sara Clark, Democracy Works
Democracy Works was founded almost a decade ago, and in that time they have made revolutionary changes to voting accessibility in the United States. Democracy Works hopes to increase voter turnout by using technology like TurboVote, which helps you find everything you need to know about any upcoming elections. We sat down with CEO Seth Flaxman and Campus Partnerships Lead Sara Clark to talk about the organization.
Can you start by telling us a bit about Democracy Works and how it got started?
Seth Flaxman: Democracy Works is all about using technology to try and help everybody vote in elections of all kinds. That means if you have ever googled “where do I vote?”, that data came from us and our partnerships with States. It also means that we build tools like TurboVote, which help people sign up and register to vote, and then remind them through text and email notification to vote in all their elections: school boards, special elections, primaries, all of them. Hopefully everyone in DUMBO will be TurboVote users!
We started the work almost a decade ago in 2010 by partnering colleges with TurboVote, and then moved on to other nonprofits, companies, and states and counties. We see ourselves as trying to find as many outlets as possible to incorporate into an on-ramp for voting that helps modernize the voting experience.
Why did you come to DUMBO? What do you like about the neighborhood?
SF: We moved to Dumbo in January of 2015, right before Dumbo got really cool :) We are really lucky that it worked out like this, because we love all the outdoor spaces and charming places to go out. Dumbo is truly a great neighborhood if you are leading an entrepreneurial organization that doesn’t fit into usual boxes. We are a tech-startup-non-profit focused on voting, which isn’t your run-of-the-mill combination. But in Dumbo you walk through the neighborhood and you can feel that there are lots of people doing innovative stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into any boxes.
Sara Clark: I have an almost outsized love for Dumbo. It all started when I began working here and I would take Instagram photos with the hashtag #dumbobeingdumbo of things that seemed so out of place when walking to your job or out getting lunch. There are always fun things going on! Seeing a monster truck with guys dressed in camouflage shooting Gotham, or the many wacky photo shoots you interrupt on your way to get your salad at Sweetgreen. It was that observational eye tuned me into the layers of technology, tourism, history, and art that exist in this place that is so unique. I’m so glad that Seth chose this neighborhood to work in because it’s so much more interesting than anywhere else in New York City.
I’m so glad we chose this neighborhood to work in because it’s so much more interesting than anywhere else in New York City.
Sara Clark, Campus Partnerships Lead
How has Democracy Works been involved in expanding voting in the city?
SC: I manage our internship program, and last summer our interns went out on the street to canvas folks with registration forms, and we then compared and contrasted the physical form with our technology apps like TurboVote.
In a broader sense, we collaborate with campuses across New York to engage students in the voting process. Last fall we partnered with LINKNYC and had TurboVote and voter registration installed on the kiosks from September up until the election.
At an even higher level, we now have over 150,000 NYC voters signed up to TurboVote. This means we are telling people who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of some elections how to vote in things like the public advocate special election, or participatory budgeting, by sending out a digital link. Hopefully we are now at a scale where we can increase participation in some of these elections that people don’t even know how to vote in.
Working with students must be a rewarding experience. What do you like most about it?
SC: I think the most exciting thing about working with students is that we have this opportunity to invite them into the voting process. They are just on the threshold of adulthood and active citizenry, and it’s our job to welcome them and make registering and voting seem seamless and easy. We feel if you can help someone do that when they are young they are much more inclined to be lifelong voters.
Change can happen quickly. What has changed for Democracy Works in the (almost) 10 years it has been around?
SF: They say people overestimate the amount of change that can happen in 5 years and underestimate what’s possible to do in 10 years. 10 years ago this was just barely an idea, and this past midterm we had almost every major tech company in the country sending us traffic or integrating our data. Facebook was sending traffic to TurboVote, so was Snapchat. Google made it possible on the homepage to find your polling place. We have one more year to go before 10, so hopefully we can even beat those expectations. But it has felt like a crazy rocket ship ride, especially for a nonprofit which is very unique.
In DUMBO you walk through the neighborhood and you can feel that there are lots of people doing innovative stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into any boxes.
Seth Flaxman, CEO
Sara, you’re known in the office as the Dumbo ambassador: What do you like in the neighborhood? Any specific spots or tips for locals?
SC: My big tip is to get out and explore the whole neighborhood. It isn’t one place that has just one feeling. This side of the bridge, that side, THAT side of the bridge, they all have a really unique character. And if you are just coming here from out of town for the first time, you may be more inclined to stay near the waterfront but there's so much more interesting stuff happening this side of the Manhattan Bridge as well.
SF: In terms of favorite places, we do Thursday happy hour and we are partial to two bars. We love Superfine! big fans of their French fries and Bo, the bartender.
You guys seem to love the neighborhood so much, can you pick a favorite spot in DUMBO?
SC: So hard to choose just one! I love the new Butler Bakeshop, they have the best corn chowder I've ever had. I highly recommend their soups, I don't think you can have a bad soup there.
SF: I think DUMBO should be proud to host the only bodega with really good fresh udon noodle soup at Bridge Fresh. It may even be the best bodega in NYC!
SC: Brooklyn Roasters is also great, and definitely one of the top ten coffee shops in NYC. The staff are incredible, and they are constantly doing innovative things. Plus they have a publishing house right next door. You can get your coffee, read a book, I love it.!