Matt Mahan (left) founded Brigade as a way to encourage civic engagement online.

Courtesy of Brigade

Looking to Repair Democracy? There's an App for That

Brigade, a social media site geared toward the politically minded, has a lofty goal: to reinvent the face of civic engagement for the digital age.

Watching the bare-knuckle cage match that is our presidential election in 2016, it’s no wonder voters are tempted to just unplug the television and bolt the door until Election Day. But the team behind the networking site Brigade wants you to turn those frustrations into something productive. The website, funded in part by tech billionaire Sean Parker of Napster, Facebook and Spotify fame, was founded as a virtual forum for civic engagement and is now turning its attention to getting out the vote in November.

In the site’s earliest incarnation, political enthusiasts sparred over policy proposals, hoping to convince ideological opponents to switch sides or, at the very least, see another point of view. In the last few months, Brigade has shifted its emphasis to the election: Political allies in the same district declare which candidates they’ll be supporting in the voting booth, from the commander-in-chief all the way down to county coroner, with the goal of rallying like-minded folks to the cause.

When visitors first log in, they are asked for their address and presented with dozens of issue-related survey questions. Then, their answers are compared to other users (including people in their area) who’ve pledged their votes to a specific candidate. This is particularly useful, CEO Matt Mahan points out, for down-ballot races: After the incessant media coverage of the presidential race, voters may know who they want to see in the Oval Office, but still have no idea who’s best suited to represent them on Capitol Hill, much less in City Hall.

Brigade joins the likes of Turbovote, which sends electronic reminders about key registration deadlines, and BallotReady, which can fill in any knowledge gaps in down-ballot races. NBCU and Vote Smart provide a comprehensive suite of tools to help with every step of the process, including a quiz that matches users with a candidate based on policy positions; a comprehensive FAQ page that covers eligibility, registration, polling places and more; and a tool that lets people check the voting requirements in their state. Users who were granted early access to Brigade’s new ballot tool have already pledged almost 300,000 votes for candidates from the top of the ticket to the important, but frequently overlooked, down-ballot races. And they invited almost 1 million friends to pledge votes as well.

Brigade's users can read up on local ballot propositions, get and share voting recommendations and find out who's leading in local and national races. Courtesy of Brigade

But what distinguishes Brigade from other voting tools is its permanence: Members can wonk out, regardless of how far away the next election is. Think of it as Facebook for the politically minded.

“We believe a voter network needs to exist in the world,” says Mahan. “We’re creating a way to make the political process more accessible, engaging and transparent for ordinary people. That’s our long-term vision for Brigade: to bring democracy online.”

Because Brigade tracks a user’s pledges, it’s easy for people to see their impact, like how many opinions they’ve changed through online discussions or how many people they’ve recruited to their candidate. Elizabeth McAlexander, of Knoxville, Tenn., for example, knows she’s swayed 110 other Brigade users to vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein, measurable data you can’t find anywhere else.

Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Columbia University whose research focuses on how to mobilize and persuade voters, will be studying the impact of Brigade’s pledges on turnout. While his job requires him to be a “determined skeptic,” he believes that Brigade’s social influence could boost participation. “Many people feel disconnected from the political process. In some ways, even though they are interested enough to register to vote and feel a sense of civic duty, it’s as though they were invited to a social event. Without that extra nudge of saying, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ they might just miss this one,” he explains. “Anything that brings people into contact with each other or reminds them of social norms tends to increase turnout.”

To be sure, the site still has its share of partisan strife — users who’d rather take personal swipes at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump rather than discuss those candidates’ positions — but Mahan believes those conflicts will subside once the election is over. He references the time a San Francisco county supervisor, Scott Weiner, logged in to debate affordable housing policies, a model for what he expects to see in the future as the site’s following pressures elected officials to make an account.

Once a new president is sworn in, Mahan sees Brigade as an important driver in guiding the issues that the new administration will focus on. Rather than imitate the mud-slinging candidates did in the run-up to the election, Mahan hopes users will be able to carry on high-minded political discussions and collaborate on solutions. “There’s a lack of faith today that our political process works,” says Mahan. “There’s a feeling that participation doesn’t matter and that the system is rigged.” And that may be the biggest reason of all for forums like Brigade to exist — to create a much-needed space for citizens to meaningfully carry out their civic duties.

This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]