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One stop shopping for candidates online

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 2:47 PM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Creating an online presence is a daunting task for many local political candidates
  • Democracy.com founders bought the URL and created a Facebook-type website for political candidates
  • It's set up to be easy-to-use for candidates and one-stop shopping for voters

Washington (CNN) -- Prime shopping season might be underway this holiday season, but candidate shopping might be a little easier for voters next campaign season.

Melissa Yasinow, 28, was born and raised in suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which has a population of about 46,000 people.

Yasinow is so vested in her town that she decided to run for city council. To help her run her campaign, she enlisted family and friends.

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Yasinow did what any serious candidate would do. She engaged voters, planned and hosted campaign events and solidified a platform.

It was a tall order for her and her loyal team of helpers who all simultaneously held down full time jobs. But she had checked all the boxes of a traditional campaign.

She ultimately won, but an aspect of modern campaigning was missing and not within her reach.

Daunting for the political novice and attorney was creating an online presence.

While the millennial is an avid user of social media and the Web, she had no idea how to build a website, calling it "completely overwhelming." Plus, she didn't have the time or campaign cash to maintain it and update it.

"I tried to set up a website and it's not something that's easy to do," she said, acknowledging that a candidate must have a social presence to engage voters.

Businesses and brands are much more successful when there's a website. It's no different for political candidates.

Obama perfected it, but many left out

While the 2012 presidential race was a $1 billion campaign and most Senate and House races are multi-million-dollar episodes featuring an interactive website, it's not in the cards for most running for some 550,000 state and local elected positions around the country.

That's what the founders of Democracy.com set out to change, believing that an online presence will level the playing field for candidates, regardless of economic and political background and experience.

Democracy.com is the "social network for politics," founder Talmage Cooley said during a recent interview.

He thought of the idea while attending the Harvard Kennedy School where he worked to find a solution to the abundance of money in politics and a flawed campaign finance system, which is steeped in political agendas with little chance of being reformed anytime soon.

"The only thing left was the marketplace of voter opinion," Cooley said.

He noted that many candidates still didn't have an online presence in 2012, four years after Barack Obama revolutionized the use of the Web to mobilize supporters.

Cooley formed a team with expertise in politics, tech and business, and received investor support to create a Facebook-type website for political candidates.

"For the first time, [candidates] can have an Obama quality" Web presence," Cooley, a former Wall Street bond trader and filmmaker, said -- and at no cost.

'Democratizing democracy'

The portal includes every political office -- from school board in Belfast, Maine, to President of the United States. All candidates have to do is "claim" their profile and then it's theirs to advertise campaign events, list their platform and raise money.

It's how we can "democratize democracy," Ray Rivera, the organization's co-founder and former Obama campaign organizer and state director.

Cooley said his goal is to "to see that elections are accessible to everyone." He thinks he is doing just that by removing a significant technological and financial barrier.

Even the most obscure candidates representing obscure political parties can have a profile on Demcoracy.com.

Yasinow agrees. "It levels the playing field and encourages qualified individuals to run for office," she said.

Willingboro, New Jersey Town Councilman Nathaniel Anderson said Democracy.com enabled him to reach voters he normally wouldn't be able to, especially on the fundraising front.

"I would normally target relationships I already had," Anderson said of his 2013 re-election campaign. He said the public didn't donate to his campaign before he opened his profile, but then said, "I was reaching a wider universe" as voters took advantage of the donation mechanism on his Democracy.com profile.

Cooley also said he couldn't believe that in 2012 candidate information for voters still couldn't be found in one place.

So for the voter, it's one-stop-shopping.

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