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Democrats are getting a boost from an unlikely source: Laid-off tech workers with more free time

Tech for Campaigns, an organization that connects tech workers with resource-strapped swing-state candidates, said it has seen a surge in new volunteers.
Illustration of pixelated tech workers holding clipboards and wearing VOTE shirts, with text bubbles reading "VOTE."
A surge in tech-savvy volunteers has been driven by a combination of factors, including tech sector job cuts and the Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional protection for abortion. Erik Carter for NBC News

Emily Liu, 26, a tech worker in Southern California, was among hundreds of employees who lost their jobs last month when the communications technology company Twilio announced it was cutting 11% of its workforce, part of a wave of layoffs across the tech industry. 

But instead of immediately bouncing back into the tech workforce, Liu had another idea. Inspired by a college friend who had posted on LinkedIn, she decided to spend the next several weeks using her digital marketing expertise to help Democratic midterm campaigns. 

Now, temporarily freed from her usual work in software marketing, Liu is volunteering remotely for a coastal South Carolina legislator in his re-election fight more than 2,000 miles away. 

“I kind of always took it for granted that California was so blue, and I wanted to do something with a little more impact,” said Liu, who cited reproductive rights and mental health care as two issues she’s most passionate about. 

She has plenty of company. 

Tech for Campaigns, an organization founded in 2017 to connect tech workers who live in Democratic strongholds with resource-strapped swing-state candidates, said it has seen a surge in new volunteers driven by a combination of factors, including tech sector job cuts and the Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional protection for abortion.

The group, which works exclusively on state legislative races in red and purple states, said it saw 10 times as many signups in June as in April after a leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s eventual abortion ruling set off a scramble in state capitals to write and enforce abortion-related laws. 

“The large majority are in districts where they feel like they’re fairly aligned already with the people that represent them, and they really want to be able to do something,” said Jessica Alter, a co-founder of Tech for Campaigns. Like many tech workers and investors, she moved to San Francisco from elsewhere — Michigan, in her case — and still feels invested in the politics of her home state. 

High-profile state-level fights over election laws, LGBTQ rights, Medicaid and pandemic response have only raised awareness of the importance of state legislatures, Alter said. 

“A lot has changed between June and now,” she said. “Name an issue. The states pretty much control it.” 

Tech for Campaigns doesn’t ask volunteers whether they’ve been laid off, so the group doesn’t have data about the precise impact of industry layoffs compared to other factors, such as the Supreme Court ruling. Lauren Miller, a spokesperson for the group, said that anecdotally, the job cuts have boosted sign-ups. 

Carl Harris, 39, was laid off from his product manager job at in August as part of mass job cuts at the petition website. Now, from his home in San Francisco, he spends about eight hours a week volunteering for a Michigan state House candidate — about double the time commitment he has had in past election cycles. 

“I volunteer pretty much every election cycle, but usually I just do phone-banking,” he said. “But since I had a little more time, I decided to volunteer with Tech for Campaigns.”

Harris is analyzing data to optimize email fundraising while searching for his next position in tech. 

“Work is up and down, and here I feel like there’s something I can help build,” he said. 

Tech for Campaigns said it has 16,203 volunteers in its network overall — though not all of them are active at once — and that it has worked on 125 state legislative campaigns this election cycle. The volunteers usually work in teams of three to four tech workers who handle advertising, emails, websites and other tasks that line up with some of their current or former day jobs at companies like Meta and Salesforce. The group also runs a voter turnout operation in five states. 

According to the group, the size of its network is up from 13,500 volunteers in 2020 and 7,000 in 2018 — a resource that Republicans may have trouble matching, given the progressive politics of many tech workers. (NBC News couldn’t independently verify the volunteer numbers.) 

Whether there’s a tech expertise gap between Democrats and Republicans is difficult to measure. Republicans don’t have an organizational equivalent to Tech for Campaigns, but they have spent years building their own technical machinery, such as the Data Trust. They’re also receiving millions of dollars from tech venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans at the state level, didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Tech for Campaigns puts its focus on states where it thinks it can help flip legislative chambers, as in Michigan, where Republicans control the House and the Senate. 

Jennifer Conlin, who’s running for the Michigan House in a closely divided district that includes part of Ann Arbor, said that she appreciates the help of college students who volunteer but that tech workers bring another level of knowledge and experience. 

“Running for the first time and learning the ropes here, I just didn’t have time to micromanage all my fundraising emails and volunteer emails and all the things that have to happen on a campaign,” she said. 

Some tech workers are in their third election cycles as volunteers, giving them a base of experience to work from. 

Katie Miller, an employee at Slack who previously worked for Google and Asana and began volunteering with Tech for Campaigns in 2017, said she had planned to mostly step back this year. But she happened to be visiting Florida in April, when the Legislature voted for a bill backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to punish Disney for its stance on LGBTQ rights

“It felt discriminatory. It felt short-sighted,” said Miller, 45. She is from central New York state and lives in Cupertino, California, but she felt the pull of swing-state politics. 

“I have family in Florida. I have friends in Florida. I knew I needed to do something, because if not me, then who?” she said. 

Since then, Miller has volunteered to lead email marketing teams for state Senate candidates in Florida and Alaska, drawing on what she called her “muscle memory” for how campaigns operate and how to personalize campaign material for specific candidates. 

“Each hour we put in will make a difference,” she said. 

Given its size, Tech for Campaigns can test different messages and tactics across states. It also now has three cycles’ worth of historical data about what works well — subject lines for fundraising emails, for example — and a permanent set of software tools for internal use. 

“When we first started, we were just doing the work, and now we have so much data that we can better inform campaigns about what’s working and not working,” Alter said. 

It is assistance that candidates in down-ballot races might otherwise not be able to afford or find locally, given small budgets and remote locations. 

“Technologists are expensive,” said Sonyl Nagale, 42, a software engineer in New York City for the financial software firm Cosaic. 

Nagale, who was raised in Iowa, leads teams for two races this year in Minnesota. He said he spends two to three hours a week on average building, improving and maintaining campaign websites. 

“If we’re looking at web development, if we’re looking at digital ads, if we’re looking at email campaigns — people know how to charge their worth, and this is a hundreds-of-dollars-an-hour skill set,” he said.