Towards empathetic disruption: Civic tech and doing what works

Journalism / Article

Today, we’re announcing $1 million in new support for Democracy Works, to expand the TurboVote platform and support the launch of Ballot Scout, a tool for local elections officials and voters that uses Postal Service barcode technology to track absentee ballots. RELATED LINKS

Knight News Challenge: Elections Mixtape” by Knight Foundation “Some tips on applying for Knight News Challenge: Elections” by Lucas Hernandez on Knight blog, 03/05/15

Democracy Works launches new voter tool, expands programs” by Seth Flaxman on Knight blog, 03/04/15

Balancing technology risks and benefits in elections” by Jeremy Epstein on Knight blog, 03/02/15

To improve civic participation we need transparency” by Chris Gates on Knight blog, 02/26/15

“Civic engagement essential to strengthening democracy” by Kelly Born on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge on Elections opens for ideas” by Chris Barr and Shazna Nessa on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge to focus on Elections” on Knight blog, 02/12/15

We’re particularly excited to be joined by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is announcing $400,000 in support for Democracy Works.

The grant to Democracy Works–the third we’ve made since 2011–is part of our strategy to take advantage of new digital tools to improve the ways in which Americans relate to their government and to one another.

We’re funded lots of experiments on this topic in recent years, through a News Challenge on open government, through the Knight Prototype Fund, through our Community and National Initiatives program, and through the Knight Enterprise Fund. (Here’s some of what we’ve learned.) One thing we’ve noticed is that the most successful startups have figured out ways to work with incumbent players in their sectors, not merely to disrupt them. Democracy Works typifies that approach. The grant will support, among other things, the implementation of Ballot Scout, a system to add mail tracking barcodes to absentee ballots. Democracy Works developed Ballot Scout after working closely with 8,000 of its potential customers, the elections officials.  All the while, TurboVote continues to expand by working with university and nonprofit partners to customize the platform.

Democracy Works pushes for systemic change by building technology that serves both citizens and institutional actors. It’s become a civic force independent of political parties, innovating government from the outside in. Their work in building out Ballet Scout and TurboVote will help make civic information more relevant and available to more people regardless of their party affiliation. We hope others will join them.

Do you have an idea to make elections better? If so, check out the Knight News Challenge on Elections, which is open for submissions through 5 p.m. ET March 19. You can also weigh in on other ideas. Winners of Knight News Challenge: Elections will share in more than $3 million. Learn more at

John Bracken is vice president for media innovation and Lucas Hernandez is a media innovation associate for Knight Foundation.