By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Marci Harris, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of POPVOX, says her introduction to the start-up world came through a very unfortunate circumstance, specifically helping a city recover after a deadly tornado.
Yet, that experience, coupled with service as a Congressional aide, propelled the Lexington, TN native to launch the civic engagement company five years ago. POPVOX will expand beyond its initial federal only focus beginning in January.
Harris, a colleague of mine on the Launch Tennessee Board of Directors, told us she was running the reelection campaign of long-time Jackson Mayor Charles Farmer in 2003. On the eve of the election in May, a line of tornados killed 38 people in Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee including 11 in Jackson. Damage to the city was extensive with a fire station, water plant, main post office, 911 center, school, church, large manufacturing plant, and many homes and businesses heavily damaged or destroyed.
“I became the city’s Tornado Recovery Coordinator,” Harris says. “I learned so much as I observed entrepreneurs bringing their businesses back to life. I also got a real taste of federal and local level operations.”
Fast forward a few years, and the Tennessee native, who went on to earn a law degree prior to working as Legislative Counsel for a U.S. Representative, identified the entrepreneurial opportunity that led to the launch of POPVOX.
“I saw a need to apply technology to the information overload that Congressional staff faced,” Harris explained, describing POPVOX as an innovative advocacy platform that meshes legislative data with individuals’ personal stories and sentiments.
Launched in 2011, POPVOX provides an easy-to-use way for constituents to express their opinions on legislation and have those views shared with their U.S. Senators and Representatives. In addition, it provides Members of Congress and their staffers a dashboard with bill status information, customized tracking, and real-time constituent views and comments.
“Our goal is to make it easier for lawmakers to understand what their constituents are saying,” Harris says.
Up until now, the company has been focused solely on bills introduced in Congress, but Harris and the team are now responding to a request that it has heard from others.
“Almost from the start in 2011, we were asked about expanding POPVOX to the states,” she says. Now, some two years after launching a complete rewrite of the underlying code, the 50-state version will be launched in January.
In the case of Tennessee, every bill introduced for consideration by the General Assembly will be posted on the POPVOX/TN website. Citizens can create a free account and make their views known on any bill. The underlying architecture makes sure that the opinions will be sent via email to the appropriate State Senator and Representative.
Ahead of the official launch in January, POPVOX/TN is running a pilot that allows Tennesseans to comment on five likely topics of legislation during the upcoming session. Those topics are an increase in the gasoline tax, expansion of TennCare, regulatory changes to allow electric utilities to provide broadband beyond their service jurisdictions, criminal justice reform, and a “safe access” allowance for medical marijuana prescribed by a physician.
“Our goal is to have constituents informed and engaged,” Harris says.
As far as POPVOX, she describes it as a virtual company with operations in three regions. Harris is based in San Francisco, while Rachna Choudhry, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer, is located in Washington, DC. A third key executive is Ben Harris, her brother and POPVOX’s Chief Financial and Operations Officer who is located in Jackson.
“More than half of our team has Tennessee ties,” Harris says proudly.
How does POPVOX work? It starts with the simple sign-up process. You enter an email address, your first and last names, and the zip code. That process takes you to a second page where you provide additional information such as specific address and telephone number. You are assigned a constituent number. In my case, it’s 453937.
Harris emphasizes that individuals can choose to be identified or remain anonymous as far as the public site is concerned. However, the email that is generated from each individual post and sent to the appropriate legislator identifies the constituent by name.
“Our system validates that the lawmaker is hearing from a constituent,” she says. That’s important in terms of the mission that POPVOX is focused on addressing.