Jess Riegel is CEO and Co-Founder of Participant Inc., an impact-as-a-service company. Their mission is to increase the positive impact that companies, schools, and organizations have on the world by helping them manage social good initiatives and measure what works. Jess explains how her own “drop-off problem” inspired the creation of their first product, Motivote, and how this kind of innovation is strengthening democracy.
On paper, I check all the boxes for "civically engaged millennial." I have degrees in Political Science and Public Administration. I participated in (and later, staffed) both Model UN and Youth & Government programs. I’ve asked bartenders to switch the TV to the Vice Presidential debate. I’ll talk incessantly about political topics and care deeply about policy design.
And yet, until 2018, I had never voted in a non-presidential election.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was important. But it wasn't prioritized. I was living in New York but still registered in New Jersey. By the time I realized there was an election (usually on social media, the day of), it was too late to do anything. So, voting didn't happen. I didn’t love that outcome but didn't lose sleep over it. Sound familiar?
The Drop-off Problem
I’m far from alone. 50% of registered voters don’t end up casting their ballots due to reasons like missing a deadline or not having time, according to one study of New Yorkers. 18% said they didn't know the election date. 16% just forgot.
You might call these "excuses." You might say people need to try harder. But not following through on the intentions you set for yourself is part of being human. In fact, there's an entire field of study, behavioral economics, devoted to dissecting why we don’t always do the things that we want to do, say we’ll do, and would feel good about doing.
While earning my MPA at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, I began to explore the drop-off that happens from intention and action as a capstone research project. Studying the behavioral science of civic participation made me want to build something to change the status quo. It planted the seed to build Participant Inc. and inspired the company’s first product, Motivote.
The Motivote Solution
Motivote utilizes the same strategies that help us go to the gym, save money, and learn new skills: social accountability, descriptive norms, gamification, plan-making prompts, and reminders. We deliver research-proven “nudges” that help people overcome intention-action gaps in voting and build civic habits.
If you've ever used Headspace to get into a meditation routine or Fitbit for a step competition with friends, you know this approach. These strategies work because they help us plan around potential points of drop-off and create incentives for following through.
In the voter engagement space, there's a lot of "Remember to vote!" and "It's so important!" and "It's your civic duty!" What’s often missing is the support and structure that meets people where they are, acknowledges that sometimes people drop the ball, and breaks down a confusing, sometimes off-putting process into bite-sized steps.
Research showing the power of social accountability and plan-making (for example, people who make a plan to vote are 2X as likely to actually vote) inspired us to build the Motivote platform and launch our startup journey. We found lots of enthusiasm for what we were building, and partnered with accelerators and investors (Project W’s Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp, Forum Venture’s Acceleprise Accelerator, NYU’s Summer Launchpad, Quake Capital, and Dorm Room Fund) to take the next step.
Our first iteration was a voter-facing app. Small groups used the platform to commit to voting and be held accountable and we saw meaningful impact in our first few pilots. (In one test, voting rates tripled YoY in a student government election!)
While running early pilots, we got to know who would become our core customer: The operators tasked with managing civic initiatives at their workplaces (think: Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Engagement at companies, Student Life at colleges). Despite enthusiasm, they face challenges in implementation: They lack clear roadmaps for what to do, coherent ways to track data, and – of course – time. So, we reimagined the product to better support program leaders, with features to help them structure their programs and measure the impact.
Today, Motivote is live with two dozen institutional partners including Aflac, REI, Eileen Fisher, Higher Heights, and Miami Dade College.
Corporate Investment in Civic Engagement
Our growth reflects a broader evolution of how institutions think about being civically active – a paradigm shift we’ve had a front-row seat to while building in this space. I’ve spoken with hundreds of folks in roles like corporate HR, CSR and Public Affairs, who say 2018 or 2020 was their first swing at a voting initiative – and now they’re looking to take it to the next level. For some, they tell us that even emailing out a reminder about elections would have been unheard of at their organization just five years ago. Now, they can’t imagine not engaging.
The growth of interest in tools like Motivote reflects a broader shift toward more investment in civic engagement. Not because it’s the “right thing to do,” but because leaders now see how much the quality of our political systems shape their missions. As a result, we’re seeing a surge of former “civic bystanders,” namely businesses and universities, getting involved in democracy issues for the first time.
For example, the number of companies signed on to the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan business coalition, swelled by 400% percent from 2018 to 2020. It now has over 1,200 members.
Why? Data shows employees and consumers are more likely to support brands that promote democracy. As a society, we increasingly understand that a healthy political system is foundational to everything else.
Think of civic health as a natural resource; just like our communities need clean water and air to thrive, we also need functioning institutions. From the economy, to climate, to social justice and human rights, they all depend on effective and responsive institutions.
Innovation That Strengthens Democracy
With the U.S. midterm elections around the corner, we’re in a difficult moment for democracy. But here’s what’s encouraging: It’s now the new normal for institutions like workplaces, where we spend the bulk of our time, to pitch in to help people navigate the voting process.
We see the “mainstreaming” of voter engagement as an opportunity to innovate. As more organizations invest in helping their communities vote, that means more demand for user-friendly, modern tools that meet people where they are and build habits. We’re excited to be part of that shift and to continue playing our part in strengthening democracy.
Learn more about Motivote: https://motivote.us/