Emily Myers, a 25-year-old living in Washington, D.C., was feeling defeated one day in October after learning that the Supreme Court had upheld a voter ID law in North Dakota that requires street addresses, which she worried would disenfranchise thousands of Native Americans who have only P.O. boxes. At the same time, Taylor Swift had posted on Instagram a few days earlier, imploring her 112 million followers to register to vote and voicing her support for a couple of Tennessee Democrats. While Myers didn’t have millions of followers, she thought of another platform where she had direct access to potential voters: Tinder.
In the run-up to the midterms, Myers isn’t the only Tinder user to log on to the app specifically for voter outreach rather than flirting with strangers. The trend comes amid related cultural shifts, as campaigning has become more digital and daters increasingly are looking for matches who share their views.
“Maybe something good will happen,” she recalls thinking. “Maybe someone will register.” Or maybe someone will tell their friend about this Tinder match who seemed more interested in democracy than hooking up.
But sending spam, campaigning or nudging people toward external websites is verboten on Tinder. And after several days of swiping right and racking up over 200 matches and messaging these men that they should visit Vote.org to check on their registration status, Myers discovered her Tinder account was locked. Someone must have reported her.
Discussing political opinions with a potential mate “used to be so unsexy,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “Now it’s almost uncool to talk about unpolitical things. If you’re not voting and you don’t have that ‘I voted’ sticker, it’s embarrassing.”
It could also keep you from getting a date: In a recent survey of OkCupid users, 46 percent of millennial female respondents (and 29 percent of the men) said they wouldn’t date someone who didn’t vote. Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, said that in the past two years, the dating site has seen a 1,000 percent increase in political terms showing up in daters' profiles.
Several dating apps and sites have their own digital versions of that oblong sticker. OkCupid has an ACLU badge that users can add to their profiles and is encouraging its users to go on phone-banking dates. Bumble has an “I am a voter” tag that daters can add to their profile, alongside their height, drinking habits and pet preferences. Tinder displays in-app advertising that users can click to go to a voter registration site.
“However,” a Tinder spokeswoman warned, “campaigning on behalf of a candidate (including yourself), party or issue is against our Community Guidelines and is enforced.”
For the upcoming midterms, CIRCLE notes that 34 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds say they’re “extremely likely” to vote, which is part of the reasoning behind candidates logging on to dating apps — it’s an attempt to meet young people where they are. According to the New York Times, Suraj Patel, the 34-year-old who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Carolyn Mahoney for her seat in New York, tried courting voters on Tinder. Patrick Register, a 37-year-old congressional candidate from North Carolina who lost his May 2018 primary, told McClatchy News that Tinder-banking was “probably the greatest thing that I’ve done on this campaign in terms of the volume of people that I can have a personal conversation with.” Such strategies are often short-lived, as candidates’ or supporters’ efforts are quickly flagged and shut down.
Emma Weinstein-Levey is a 28-year-old woman who works in political communications in Washington, felt anxious about Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, she took to Tinder. Weinstein-Levey had done some Tinder swiping while traveling in Maine over the summer, so before Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had decided how she was going to vote on Kavanaugh, Weinstein-Levey messaged some of her lingering Tinder matches, encouraging them to urge the senator to vote no. Two of her matches said they’d already called.“Living in D.C. and not having that real political representation of my own,” Weinstein-Levey said, “I wanted to see if I could encourage someone who might not be politically engaged as I am to stake their claim in the process that I thought was upsettingly off the rails.”
Jen Winston, a 30-year-old in New York City, said she’s found Tinder banking to be “much more effective than canvassing in real life.” Recently she used her Tinder Plus membership — which allows users to manually change their location so that they can set up dates ahead of traveling — to chat up voters in swing districts in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and her home state of Indiana.
Winston runs a feminist Instagram account with a large following, called Girl Power Supply, so she’s practiced in Internet political activism. When she tweeted about her Tinder campaign in late October, it got almost 8,000 retweets.
Dan Xie was making the most of lackluster OkCupid dates by registering her matches to vote, on the spot, in 2010 and 2012. At the time, she estimates that she was going on about five OkCupid dates a week — and in her professional life, she was running voter registration drives on college campuses. Xie, who’s now 31, said that asking a prospective partner “Are you a voter?” tells you a lot about them.
Glorianna Tillemann-Dick, a 25-year-old woman in Denver, is so passionate about democracy that one of her profile photos on the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel is a picture of her wearing leggings that say VOTE and a caption that reads: “Want to meet up at your polling place?” If a dating profile is essentially an advertisement about yourself, “I may as well be sending a productive message at the same time,” Tillemann-Dick said. She wore the leggings on a first date with a man from the app and they immediately started discussing politics. Not voting is a dealbreaker for her, but it might not have been three to four years ago.