The emails and texts have been very well intentioned and fairly relentless. Friends asking what to do about the gun epidemic. Colleagues suggesting different types of social media or celebrity campaigns to educate people about guns and mass shootings. Business partners asking how we elect moderate Republicans and wanting to fund an organization to do that. All of these people mean really well. All of them are smart, creative and thoughtful. And none of this will work.
In the decades I’ve spent working in politics — in city government, state government, federal government, in the executive branch, in the legislative branch and running electoral campaigns — I’ve come away with one key realization: every policy output is shaped by a political input. Every elected official prioritizes staying in office more than any particular policy, which means they will never sacrifice their own self interest just to do the right thing. If you want them to do something, it has to be in their political interest, it has to enhance their chances of re-election or they will not do it. It’s that simple.
We have abysmal gun laws in this country because we’re using the wrong political inputs. In the United States, virtually every legislative district is gerrymandered. That means that the only election that actually matters is the primary. And primary turnout in this country is typically 10–20%. And that 10–20% tend to be the most ideological voters or special interests who have a very specific agenda. Those voters are purists — on either side of the aisle. They don’t want compromise. They don’t want consensus. They want the policies they want in exactly the way they want and if that can’t happen, they’d rather see nothing at all.
On the right, primary voters are heavily pro-gun and frequently members in the National Rifle Association. They do not want background checks. They do not want an assault weapons ban. They believe strongly that the Second Amendment guarantees pretty much every American the right to own and carry a gun. Period.
However, if you look at polling on guns across all voters, we find that the vast majority actually agree. Most voters don’t think it should be easy to buy an automatic weapon. And most voters don’t think we should confiscate guns from people’s homes. But that 70% doesn’t matter because they don’t bother to vote in primaries. The only input GOP electeds have on this is the 15% hardcore gun advocates — defying them means losing the next election.
So how do we change that? There’s only one way in my view — mobile voting. We do everything on our phones already — banking, shopping, health care, our love lives and so on. But we can’t vote on our phones. This isn’t because the technology doesn’t exist. This isn’t because the idea has been thoughtfully studied and rejected. It’s because no one in power — on both sides of the aisle as well as lobbyists, unions, trade groups and everyone else who benefits from the status quo — wants to make it easier to lose power. And that comes before anything and everything, including protecting kids from slaughter.
When I ran many of the campaigns to legalize Uber and ridesharing a decade ago, we — at the time, this tiny startup — beat a very muscular taxi industry because we were able to use the app to mobilize our customers. Over a period of a few years, several million people emailed, texted, tweeted, called or in some way, all prompted by the app, their elected officials that they wanted ridesharing. Those numbers were so overwhelming that the political input had clearly changed and the smart move for any elected official was to support Uber and follow what their constituents said. As a result, we won in every single market in the nation.
When that happened, it hit me that if we could let people vote this way, we could exponentially increase turnout. And if we can meaningfully increase turnout, we can change the political inputs and make ideas like gun safety politically feasible. Over the last four years, the mobile voting project (which is funded and run by my foundation — Tusk Philanthropies) has funded elections in seven different states (West Virginia, South Carolina, Utah, Delaware, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington) across twenty-one jurisdictions where either deployed military, people with disabilities or both were able to vote in real elections on their phone. All 21 elections were independently audited. All came back clean. Turnout, on average, doubled.
To address complaints from the cybersecurity community, we started building our own mobile voting technology last year. Once we’re finished building it, it will be free and open sourced to any government who wants to use it.
This is the only way to change the political inputs. This is the only way to rewire the incentives. This is the only way to stop mass shootings, to come up with solutions to problems ranging from immigration to opioids, health care to education, climate change to infrastructure. The political status quo — in both parties — will do anything they can to stop it.
For example, we currently have a bill pending in the Washington DC City Council that would legalize mobile voting for DC residents. Charles Allen, the chairman of the relevant committee, is refusing to even allow a hearing on the bill because he’s deeply committed to keeping things the way they are. He may be awful, but also he’s very typical of our system and the people who run it.
And so overcoming that will require better and better technology but it really will require a movement that refuses to accept lame excuses from apologists like Charles Allen and demands something better. If you are sick of the shootings, if you are sick of a country where nothing can ever get done, if you are sick of the dysfunction, the polarization, the constant fighting — then this is how we change it.
Please check out our work at mobilevoting.org. We don’t need your money. We just want your support. Thank you.