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With 100,000 potential voters, Austin tech groups flex political muscle

Thursday, October 13, 2016 by Chad Swiatecki

Imagine 100,000 dormant, unengaged voters just waiting to be drawn into the Austin political scene.

That’s the potential that a pair of local technology groups see in the Austin tech community, which they hope to get involved in the local and state political scene in the coming years so they can shape policy to favor tech interests.

The political awakening is being spearheaded by some familiar names leading two groups, the new Austin Tech Alliance and the well-established Austin Technology Council. The ATC has long been involved in business-focused endeavors, but this summer it created the ATC Policy Coalition with the goal of bringing together “leaders from the tech and entrepreneur community, business advocacy groups, elected officials, and the voting public.”

Both groups feature leaders with well-known names, including BuildASign founder and CEO Dan Graham, who is heavily involved in both organizations; ATC Executive Director Barbary Brunner; and longtime Texas Legislature staffer Dave Edmonson, who is moving into the nonprofit world to serve as executive director of the ATA.

David Edmonson

David Edmonson

To date their efforts have been modest but deliberate, with ATC hosting a series of town hall meetings with City Council candidates and ATA creating a guide to the basics of voting and elections in Austin that tech companies distributed to employees ahead of the Oct. 11 voter registration deadline.

Edmonson said the totals of how many tech employees and founders registered to vote in time for the November election are still coming in but that the political potential in the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 techies in Austin is huge.

“We want to help educate and engage those 100,000 employees who work in Austin’s tech sector, and we’re figuring out the alignment of what the important issues are,” Edmonson said, adding that Capital Factory founder Josh Baer compared the nonprofit to a new startup company that is still figuring out its best strategy.

While Edmonson and other ATA stakeholders work on getting the membership-funded group up and running, other group members have started working on an app focused on political involvement in Austin. It’s still unnamed and yet to be slated for wide release, but it will feature polling functionality to gather information on important topics, provide information on upcoming elections and direct users to the nearest polling locations, among other functions.

Edmonson said the involvement generated by the app and the groups in general will help him and other policy types present empirical data on important topics such as anti-discrimination laws, which are a critical issue for an industry constantly trying to attract creative talent. Other important issues for the tech crowd include affordability and transportation, with the hope that political involvement could lead to tech companies putting some of their employees’ brainpower toward developing solutions to those problems.

“There are so many issues like affordability and congestion that don’t really have a left-right split here, and there’s that same nonsplit within the tech community,” Edmonson said. “What we’ll be able to do now is give proof of how big an issue is instead of anecdotal evidence that doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

With both efforts still coalescing even though they’re aligned in the same direction, neither has announced positions or endorsements in the November election, which includes a $720 million transportation bond and races for five City Council seats. Edmonson said that ATA won’t make candidate endorsements this cycle but that there could be some action related to the transit measure.

Mobility is of course a touchy subject for local techies, because the spring election that levied regulations on local ride-hailing companies – which resulted in Uber and Lyft stopping service in Austin – in several ways awakened the political muscles of many in the Austin tech world.

Edmonson said that issue will likely remain on the minds of members of both groups but added that ATA wants to be a forward-looking group and wouldn’t focus on winning old battles.

“The effort was not created to relitigate Prop 1,” he said. “The process that led to that created a sense of discontent, but we want to have a windshield view of what’s ahead instead of looking out the rearview mirror at what’s happened in the past.”

Photo by Ed Schipul available through a Creative Commons license.

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