When Ben Weyhrauch, a 29-year-old software engineer in the Bay Area got a text message from a friend about using the popular dating app Hinge to get out the vote, he quickly downloaded it and set up a profile.
Weyhrauch set his location to a city in Pennsylvania, a battleground state where he is knowledgeable about the voting rules and regulations because he has been volunteering with a voter assistance hotline in the area. Weyhrauch, who said he used photos of himself with animals in a bid to motivate people to connect with him, said that through “Hinge-banking” — a spin on phone banking as a form of political campaigning to encourage people to vote — he has had dozens of conversations in recent days with locals about their voting plans.
Weyhrauch heard about the idea through an Instagram post from last week by 30-year-old Molly Kawahata, a friend of a friend of a friend. In the post, Kawahata encouraged people to change their location on Hinge to suburbs of major cities in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Arizona and Texas.
Kawahata started using Hinge for this kind of voter outreach because users can easily set their location, down to the neighborhood or county with the free version of the app regardless of where they are physically located, allowing far away people to target areas where the Presidential race is close. On Hinge, matches are surfaced to users based on their stated location and other preferences. Bumble and Tinder both set a user’s location based on their phone’s GPS and charge a premium to change to a different location.
Once matched with users in those locations, Kawahata directed people to ask if they’ve decided on a candidate, if they’ve already voted or if they have a plan for how they’ll vote. Her goal is to persuade undecided voters to pick Democratic candidate Joe Biden, but she respects if users are supportive of President Donald Trump. (Kawahata has no association with the Biden campaign or with Hinge, but she previously worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and served in the Obama White House.)
“It is really hard to reach voters in battleground states, especially during a pandemic. If you can get ahold of someone who is undecided and is willing to talk to you, that’s a gigantic deal,” Kawahata told CNN Business. “This is a way for us to reach these voters in another way and reach them where they are.”
Kawahata calls the movement “#DateSaveAmerica,” and she’s noticed users started using other dating platforms, including Tinder and Grindr, to get people to the polls. While it’s hard to quantify the scope of the effort, Kawahata estimates that hundreds of other people have joined in, based on the number of Instagram direct messages and tags she’s receiving. A WhatsApp group dedicated to the push has over 50 members, and influencers, such as pro skier Caroline Gleich, have shared the effort with their sizable followings on Instagram. The Hinge-bankers who spoke with CNN Business have spoken to dozens of people on dating apps in recent days, ranging from a handful to upwards of 50.
Like other dating apps over the years, Hinge has used its brand to encourage civic engagement. The company — whose app made headlines when 2020 Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg revealed he met his now-husband on Hinge — partnered with nonprofit organization Rock the Vote last year to encourage voter turnout.
But it is unclear if it embraces this specific use case.
“At Hinge, our goal is to get our users off the app and into a meaningful relationship. All Hinge users have the ability to share their political views on their profile, and we encourage everyone to discuss what matters most to them when making a connection. To ensure Hinge remains a great and respectful place to date, we will continue to monitor any misuse of our platform according to our terms of service,” a Hinge spokesperson told CNN Business when asked about the effort.
Hinge’s terms of service states that users agree to not share content that relates to “commercial activities” including “sales, competitions, promotions and advertising, solicitation for services.”
It isn’t the first time people have turned to dating apps to encourage voter turnout, but the disparity between casual conversation and campaigning has proven, at times, to be a fine line. A 2018 story from The Washington Post focused on the use of dating app Tinder to get out the vote in the lead up to the midterm elections, which resulted in at least one user getting kicked off the platform.
In a statement to CNN Business, a Tinder spokesperson said its app is a place for meeting and conversing with new people, which can involve political policies and candidates, for example. “We encourage this as long as they remain respectful, human and free from spam,” the spokesperson said.
Tinder’s policies around election-related behavior, outlined here, make clear that the app cannot be used by volunteers or workers for a candidate or campaign to do phone banking. Additionally, it states that “if the sole purpose of your profile is to advocate for a candidate, party or position and not to have meaningful conversations or interactions with other members - regardless of whether you identify as a member of a campaign or employee of an organization - then your profile may be removed.”
Kawahata said not everyone has been willing to chat politics — one man unmatched with her on the app when she started talking about voting — but she said she’s been “shocked” by the number of people on the app who are still undecided this close to Election Day and who were willing to chat with her and hear her perspective.
The pandemic could be making people more receptive to such conversations. “Everyone is bored online and lonely,” she said.
Andrea Vallone, a 27-year old who works at a major tech company, started banking on Hinge after hearing about the idea through Kawahata. She said she’s reached several dozen voters in recent days. “On a dating app, your mindset isn’t fight or flight immediately. … You get more bites at the apple,” she told CNN Business. “Phone scammers have sort of cannibalized everyone’s willingness to answer the phone from an unknown, out of state zip code.”
Ann Yang, a 27-year-old who works at a mission-driven startup and heard about the idea of Hinge-banking through a social media post by Kawahata, also compared Hinge-banking to other traditional methods she’s participated in, such as volunteering to phone bank or text bank for campaigns. She said she’s found the Hinge conversations to be more engaging and effective in terms of convincing someone to vote or influencing their choice.
She shared the concept with a group of her friends, including Weyhrauch and Shayan Said, a 27-year-old lawyer in the Bay Area who told CNN Business that he changed his location on Hinge to Tarrant County in Texas, which includes Fort Worth, to give it a try.
He didn’t have much luck matching with people in Texas, so he went back through his previous matches in the Bay Area and started asking them about their voting plans, even though California is hardly a battleground state.
He’s had mixed results. While one person told him it was “off-putting” that he was trying to discuss politics, another voting conversation led to other banter and even a phone number. “It has been cool to see the impact it is having on my personal dating life,” he said.