Braille Monitor                  August/September 2021

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Stronger Future Together through a Commitment to Full Participation: Building the Tools to Empower All to Vote

by Bradley Tusk

Bradley TuskFrom the Editor: Here are the remarks President Riccobono used to introduce this innovative and committed gentleman: "Mr. Tusk has a long history of ventures that he has spearheaded, everything from capital ventures to political consulting. But what brings him to our stage today is his work through his family's foundation to really lead the national campaign to build mobile voting tools for United States elections that are accessible and secure. And he's using his own private efforts to do this. I had the opportunity to talk with him about some of his political experience and how the idea of getting more people to vote is what really drives his interest in making great policy for the nation." Here is what Mr. Tusk said:

Thanks so much for the introduction and to all of you for giving me the chance to be with you; it's a tremendous privilege.

I spent the first fifteen years of my career working directly in government and politics. I worked in New York City at city hall for Mike Bloomberg, I was the deputy governor of Illinois, worked in the United States Senate in Washington—city government, state government, federal government, executive branch, legislative branch, ran campaigns—so I really feel like I've seen government and politics from pretty much every angle.

The main takeaway I had after fifteen years is that the input shaped the outputs. If you want certain policy outputs, certain laws or outcomes, the political incentives have to be there and line up with them. If not, it doesn't happen.

Having worked with a lot of politicians over the course of my career, the conclusion I've reached is they really need the validation and affirmation that comes with holding office. This may not be true for 100 percent of them, but generally speaking, being somebody matters so much to them, it fills this hole in their psyche. They’re always going to put staying in office ahead of everything else. It doesn't make them bad people. It makes them human. My guess is that if you look back at the Greek Senate or the Roman Senate or any other democracy in history, you'd find the same thing: the people who run for office care about staying in office.

About ten years ago I ran a bunch of campaigns for Uber to legalize ridesharing all over the United States. At the time, Uber was a small tech startup, and the taxi industry was very powerful and politically connected. The way that we took them on and beat them was that we mobilized our customers and said to them, "If you like this service and want to be able to keep using it, please let your elected officials know," and through the app they were able to text or tweet or email or in some way tell their city council member, their state senator, the governor, the mayor or whoever it was that they wanted this thing to stick around. A couple million people ended up doing that, and we won in every single market in the United States. I remember thinking at the time, Wow, it's not that people are totally apathetic or disengaged. They just don't necessarily want to do what it takes to go vote in person.

What if you could vote in the way that we just mobilized all these people to argue for ridesharing? So it was an idea that was kind of in the back of our heads. Over the succeeding years, blockchain technology really improved, and it went from being a "Hey, wouldn't this be cool" to "We can do this."

I've been lucky in that in my work in venture capital and technology, I've made some money, and I put it to good use by creating this mobile voting project. We kicked off in West Virginia in 2018. Mac Warner, the secretary of state, gave us our first chance at it. It worked. We've now held twenty elections across seven different states, where it has been available either for people with disabilities or for deployed military personnel or both. We've seen states like West Virginia allow mobile voting to be available for all people with disabilities. We just heard from Secretary Griswold about Colorado doing something similar, and so far it has worked. Turnout on average has doubled in mobile voting elections, and the national cyber security center has audited every single mobile voting election. Every single one has come back clean.

Now, we have to keep improving the technology, we need to keep making it as secure as possible, but if you look at all the problems you already see with voting machines and paper ballots, we know that no system is perfect, and we know that mobile voting has the potential, as Mark said, to both make it radically easier for people to cast their ballot and be more secure than any other system.

Now the use case for the blind is obvious to everyone here, which is you should be able to vote with complete privacy and enjoy the same rights that every American has when it comes to voting, and you should be able to do that by using the same technology that helps you do so many other things all day long. You should be able to vote on your phone. It's really hard for anyone to argue that shouldn't be the case.

Yet this is still an uphill climb. That's why our work with the NFB has been so meaningful to us, and we're so grateful for your partnership. To us, the use case for the blind is obvious, but the use case for everyone is obvious, which is, we have a government that simply doesn't work. It can't function because all the incentives to staying in office are aligned toward dysfunction.

Just take this as a random example: say you're a Republican congressman from Florida, and by the way, this applies equally to both parties. Turnout in your primary is 12 percent. Because of gerrymandering, the only election that matters is the primary. The general election is a foregone conclusion. Of that 12 percent who turnout in the primary, half in this example are NRA members. You may know if you're this Congressman that people shouldn't be able to walk in off the street and walk out with an AK-47. You may look at shootings in schools, churches, and Walmarts across the country and say, "I've got to do something about this." But, at the end of the day, you also know that if you were to vote for an assault weapons ban that in the next primary you would lose your seat, and your political career would be over, and you're not willing to do that. This is true of people in both parties at every level of government—municipal, county, state, federal.

The problem isn't them; the problem is us. We either expect there to be a transformational leader who will just fix all of it—everyone who runs for president promises that, and it never happens, or we expect our politicians to act outside their own self-interest. They've never done that before; they're never going to do that going forward.

But take this same example in Florida, and imagine if the turnout in the primary were forty or fifty percent simply because everyone could vote on their phone. If you look at all the polling around assault weapons, you would see that the majority of people don’t think it should be that easy to obtain one. So, as a result, the same member of Congress who voted against the assault weapons ban to stay in office with 12 percent turnout in the primary now with fifty percent turnout in the primary is voting for it for the same reason, to stay in office. We change their political self-interest, and by doing that we change the outcome of the law itself.

We don't have to have a government that can't make decisions. We don't have to have a government that can't agree on anything. We don't have to have a government that can't get things done. We don't have to have a democracy that focuses only on the needs of a few—either the ideologues who vote in every primary or the special interests who have been able to move money and votes in primaries. We don't have to have a system where no one can succeed, but it requires change, the kind of change that you guys are thinking about here that requires thinking differently.

Look, all the people who like things the way they are aren't going to say "Yes, I prefer to keep my power the way it is. I don't want anyone else to vote." They say, "It's not secure; it's not safe. We'd love to make it easier to vote, but we just can't do it because we just can't take the risk." You see that right now in the debates over new voting laws in places like Georgia or Texas. That's what they're going to say with you too; that's what they're already saying. "Sure, we would love mobile voting, but we can't do it simply because it's too risky." That's just not true. We've already seen that in seven states and twenty jurisdictions, and people with disabilities can now tell you that firsthand in places all across the country.

So we need to keep working on the technology to make sure that it's secure, that it works, and that it's as robust as anything out there. We've got to keep working on legislators around the country to follow West Virginia's lead, follow Colorado's lead, make mobile voting available for all people with disabilities. We've got to build a movement that's willing to demand that it become easier to vote. This is only going to happen if millions of Americans step up and say, "I ought to be able to vote this way. It's secure, it's safe, and the only reason I'm not allowed to is because the people in power don't want to lose power.” That is not an acceptable reason to prevent progress and change.

We've got to do it quickly because right now we're living in a world in which every policy ends up being a failure. Every kind of political cycle ends up imploding in some way, and every time that we can't get something done—can't rebuild our bridges and roads because we can't pass an infrastructure bill, we can't figure out who is and isn't a legal American because we can't resolve immigration, we can't figure out how to make health care affordable or education more accountable or have higher standards—all of that is because the incentives in the system right now are designed to prevent things from happening. That's because turnout is low, and that's because it's simply too hard to vote, unquestionably for the blind, but in reality, for everybody. We can't keep letting that happen.

Yes, this is a hard problem, and it's a tough project. Technology can be really hard. Building movements, as you know better than anyone, is really hard, but you've done it successfully, and hopefully we can do it together again here. This is really the only way forward to a democracy that truly works, a government that truly functions, to a country that can finally solve problems like climate change or guns or education or health care, or immigration or so many others. The way we're going as a country right now just isn't sustainable. You can't fail to get anything done for decades on end and expect to stay together as a successful country.

I don't know that we can even last as one country if we don't find a way to change things. I truly believe that mobile voting is the way to change it. That's why I've put my money and my time and my connections and whatever else I have to offer into this movement, because I believe that it's the only way to save our democracy, the only way to make voting far easier and more accessible for people with disabilities and people all across our country. So I'm really just here to say thank you. You guys have been a tremendous partner to us. We've been working together in lots of different states to try to make people listen and understand why this is so important. And you guys have been among our best partners in the whole country. So the main point was just to say thank you to all of you: thank you for your partnership, thank you for listening, thank you for being part of this movement. We're going to keep fighting for you, and we're really grateful to be doing this with you.

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