UC Berkeley professors, alumni create startup to combat money in politics

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A group of UC Berkeley professors, alumni and community members have created a startup called UpRise Campaigns with the goal of disrupting the role of money in American politics.

The startup was founded by Nelson Morgan, UC Berkeley professor-in-residence emeritus from the electrical engineering and computer science department, Madelaine Plauche, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a doctoral degree in linguistics in 2001, Barath Raghavan, a staff researcher at the campus’s International Computer Science Institute and UC Berkeley alumnus, and Antonia Scatton, a longtime political consultant. The project seeks to create a hub that taps into community resources to improve political campaigns. Other UC Berkeley professors, such as George Lakoff of the linguistics department and Robert Reich of the Goldman School of Public Policy, are advisers to the project.

“I wanted to do something that has direct social impact,” Morgan said, who recently retired from his post as director of the International Computer Science Institute. “I felt very strongly that the insidious influence of big money on politics is something that affects the ability of our entire political infrastructure to get anything done.”

Instead of targeting the flow of money legislatively, Morgan and his colleagues at the project seek to reduce the intrinsic demand for money by making campaigns more efficient. He describes the organization as an AirBNB for political campaigns, empowering political volunteers by matching their skills with the campaign’s needs. Political campaigns provide tasks that need to be completed, and volunteers with appropriate skills help complete them.

UpRise is a social purpose corporation, meaning that it is created with a specific purpose besides profit. Social purpose corporations are a relatively new type of incorporation — California only began allowing the creation of social purpose corporations in January 2015 after the passage of S.B. 1301, which allowed for their creation.

“We do want it to be very clear to anyone that invests in it later that the usual goals that an investor might have — profit — are going to be way lower priorities than the social purpose,” Morgan said.

The creation of UpRise comes after the brief presidential campaign of Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard University who formed a campaign with the goal of eliminating money’s role in politics.

“I think it would’ve been great to have him on the debate stage,” Morgan said. “It was a wild idea and unfortunately it didn’t work.”

Lessig ended his campaign after two months in November 2015.

“Campaigns have gotten very costly,” said Ernesto Dal Bo, co-director of the Berkeley Center for Economics and Politics and associate professor in the campus political science department. “The barrier to entry for unorganized interests in politics are very high. Similarly, the cost of entry for candidates that are not backed by organized interests is also very high. This organization is trying to lower the cost of entry.”

Dal Bo, who is unaffiliated with the organization, said it is hard to judge if these kinds of efforts are successful as so far, he hasn’t seen many.

“It’s hard to tell (what will be successful), and any one instance might just be one shot,” Dal Bo said.

UpRise Campaigns is in the last week of an IndieGoGo campaign to raise initial money for the organization’s budget. With seven days to go, it has raised roughly $47,000 — 83 percent of its goal. UpRise, which is officially nonpartisan, hopes to be involved in some of the 2016 elections, with a broader rollout in the 2018 cycle.

Austin Weinstein covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.