Ron Kahlow: Vote-USA.org’s Quest to Help Voters and Counterbalance Money in Politics

We welcome a new partner at the site, Vote-USA.org, with a piece by its founder and director, Ron Kahlow:

With two clicks and an address, Vote-USA.org provides voters with their customized sample ballot containing pictures of the candidates and their social media links. In another click, a voter can compare the candidates’ biographical information for any office in a side-by-side manner. Subsequent clicks allow the voter to compare the views and positions of the candidates on the particular issues that concern the voter, always side-by-side for easy comparison. In addition, all of the information comes directly from the candidates themselves or is extracted from their campaign websites, i.e., there is no marketing spin or deception. That is the real power of the Vote-USA.org website. It is the ability to provide each voter the specific unfiltered views and positions of the candidates that they seek, quickly and easily. It is to enable the independent-minded voters to make their own decisions about candidates and ballot measures, and help them vote on a more informed basis.

Vote-USA.org has been providing this service to voters since the 2004 General Election. But many voters would probably ask why they have not found this resource during the last 8 years. Frankly, it is a tale of triumph and disaster, a tale of naivety, a tale of obsession, a tale of pride and embarrassment, a tale of not knowing when to give up, and a tale of David and Goliath.

My tale begins when I went to the polls to vote in the 2003 Virginia off-year election for Virginia Senate and House offices. When I entered the voting booth, I didn’t know anything about any single candidate or anything about the ballot measures. I didn’t even know there were any ballot measures. As I stood in the booth, I thought, what’s the value of voting if you don’t know who you are voting for, and making thoughtless decisions about ballot measures? Then driving home, I saw all those political posters trashing up the highways. This got my blood boiling. I thought to myself, is this any way to select the people to represent me? And, when I reached home and turned on the TV, there was an insulting, deceptive candidate-bashing political ad. The idea of spending billions of dollars to deceive me to vote this way or that pushed me over the edge. At that moment, I envisioned creating Vote-USA.org to fix this blatant fundamental flaw in our political system.

In 2003, I owned an Internet digital marketing agency, Business OnLine (BusinessOL.com), and I was convinced I could use my for-profit company resources to develop a solution to fix this problem. On a hobby basis, I built the first version of what is today Vote-USA.org and it was operative for the 2004 General Elections. I sent letters to all of the Federal and State candidates with their login credentials to enter whatever information they wanted. Few responded because the system is stacked in favor of incumbents. I was too naïve not to have realized that there was no incentive for them to change the game with this new Internet trump card. But, voters responded overwhelmingly. Remember the 2004 TV ad of people watching the number of hits promoting a product via ecommerce? Well that is what we experienced. As Election Day approached, a trickle turned into a torrent and then simply exploded. Triumph quickly turned to disaster as word spread. Our servers became overloaded and could not respond to the overwhelming demand. Frankly, for somebody in the Internet space business, this was an embarrassment.

Clearly we were easing the pain of voters because there was such enormous demand for this tool. So, the next couple years were spent attempting to rectify the problems of the 2004 elections. We built a farm of servers to handle the expected load. Since most candidates would not provide us with their information, we built the tools necessary to easily scrape their websites. Then, we hired a firm to do the scraping. We also developed tools to readily enter state election rosters.

Our efforts marginally paid off in the 2005 and 2006 elections. It seemed that regardless of how many servers we employed, the demand always exceeded the capacity. Although we keep Vote-USA.org up for longer periods of time, we could never keep the website up through the entire voting period.

 

But the biggest problem of all was cost. The financial resources needed far exceeded everybody’s wildest imagination. Voters were very kind with their tax deductible donations to support our operation, but this was only a very tiny fraction of what was needed. So, I and a friend covered the difference. Now, any reasonable thinking person would have thrown in the towel. But, one of my flaws is not knowing when to give up. I became obsessed with the mission and too proud to call it quits.

 

But that was not the end of our pains. Not long after the 2006 elections, we were hammered by the Internet Goliath Google. Vote-USA.org suddenly stopped appearing on all of Google’s search listings and all our pages had no Google ranking. We were totally blocked by Google and other search engines. We made numerous attempts, over a period of years, to find the reason(s) for this action and made numerous attempts to get the block removed. Finally, only after a very powerful Washington insider approached Google with our complaint did Google reveal the reason for its blocking action and finally we managed to resolve this problem. So, if you ask why you have not found us sooner, it is because the gatekeeper of the Internet locked the gate on us and only recently has it been opened. We believe there was nothing malicious on Google’s part. The problem centered on Google’s inability to effectively spider and index our website.

 

Our final, and most significant problem of voter traffic at election time has been solved by moving our website onto the cloud. We now have almost unlimited power at election time.

 

So, where are things today? Well we have built what we set out to build in 2003 and all of the problems and obstacles encountered so far have, to my knowledge, been solved. We are, however, without financial resources to continue; so, we manage to keep things running on a month-to-month basis. But, our most valuable asset is the will to continue regardless of what is thrown at us. And, we believe that what we are doing is not only helping citizens vote on a more informed basis but also serving as a counterbalance to the corrupting influence of money in politics. We believe that these are things worth fighting for regardless of the cost.

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