Vote (Mostly) Online Shuts Down (For Now)

Vote (Mostly) Online, a civic-minded startup that aimed to help streamline the voting process for Wisconsin residents, has shut down operations.

But co-founder Mike Fenchel says this might not be the end for the Madison, WI, startup’s idea. He’s trying to find people with the time and resources to restart the project.

Vote (Mostly) Online—we’ll call it VMO for short—allowed users to quickly verify if they’re registered to vote and, if not, to fill out some personal information on its website and request an official voter registration form in the mail. Next, the website would let visitors request that an absentee ballot be mailed to them, review biographical information of all the candidates up for election, and click on who they intended to vote for in each race.

Meanwhile, VMO handled all the back-end grunt work. If someone weren’t registered to vote, VMO would print off, fill out, and mail the registration form to the person, who only needed to sign the document and send it to the clerk’s office in the prepaid envelope provided by VMO. For registered voters, the site would contact the clerk’s office to request the absentee ballot on their behalf. After that, VMO e-mailed users to ensure they received the documents in the mail and reminded them to fill out and mail in the ballot—including reminding them who they “voted” for on the website.

VMO’s co-founders included Fenchel and Niko Skievaski, both co-founders of Madison co-working space 100state, and Ninjas For Health co-founders Kyle Pfister and Chris Franson.

Although VMO didn’t allow users to actually cast their votes online, the startup’s co-founders believed they were easing the process and nudging potential millennial voters to follow through. It’s not that millennials don’t care about participating in democracy, VMO said on its website, it’s that voting “feels like such a pain, and we’re not used to doing things like going to physical places or working with printers and stamps (snail mail is so 20th century).”

VMO isn’t the only startup that has tried to bring America’s voting system into the 21st century. San Diego-based Everyone Counts, for example, created a suite of software products to bypass voting machines and paper ballots. It has facilitated completely online voting for elections in multiple states, as well as private-sector contests like the Oscar and Emmy awards.

VMO’s idea, however, generated a tepid response from the electorate. VMO offered its service during one election: last November’s election that resulted in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holding on to his post. Despite setting a record for voter turnout in a regular Wisconsin gubernatorial election, with 2.4 million votes cast, Fenchel says only 250 people used VMO.

VMO was a volunteer operation that relied on donations. Each voter that used VMO donated an average of $2.60, but that only covered about half the costs of offering the service in the November election, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. And given that each member of VMO’s team is also an entrepreneur working on other startups, it reached a point where they couldn’t give VMO “the dedicated attention it deserves,” Fenchel says.

VMO announced on Twitter last week that the startup was “shutting down operations,” but Fenchel describes it as “putting it on pause.”

“We are still in discussion with a few different groups about licensing the software, and we are also hopeful that a young passionate leader will come around that will want to build on what we’ve started,” Fenchel says in an e-mail message. “The project shows real promise to continue to help voting become modernized.”

Despite the low usage numbers, Fenchel says he was happy with a few things that VMO accomplished. Based on previous voting records, VMO estimates that 200 of its 250 users wouldn’t have voted, were it not for VMO making the process smoother. And “more than 60 percent of those who used our system followed through with their final vote,” Fenchel says. “We believe the low overall number was due to the fact that we didn’t have adequate time to establish partnerships with other organizations,” he adds. “While we wanted to reach more voters in the election, we’re definitely happy we did it.”

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in the state, was “extremely skeptical” of VMO at first. But after the election, the agency reached out to VMO to “learn from our findings (which we shared with them),” Fenchel says. “Since our goal was to make it simple to vote, and GAB governs that process, we feel that was a major accomplishment.”

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