Breaking Through

Increasing Civic Engagement Before, During, and After Elections

Join us at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin for a one-day conference that will explore ways to move citizens from bystanders to active participants in teh democratic process.

Date: Wednesday, July 22, 2015 - Austin, Texas. View Conference Schedule.

Hosted by The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life

The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life seeks to understand and overcome obstacles to civic engagement through nonpartisan research and educational outreach programs.

The Texas Civic Health Index released by the Institute showed that Texas lagged behind on almost every measure.
Read the Full Report and share the infographic. See our questionnaire at

For media inquiries, please email For all other inquiries or questions, please call (512) 471-1959.

Join us for a gathering of experts in technology, journalism, civics, and elections to share stories and ideas on how to get people involved in shaping their communities and participating in the political process.

Knight News Challenge

Knight News Challenge on Elections winners announced at the conference.

Winners of the Knight News Challenge on Elections were announced and grantees presented their innovative ideas on how to better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections. The challenge is a collaboration between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, Hewlett Foundation, and Rita Allen Foundation.

Conference Recordings

Democracy By The People

Keynote Addess

Peter Levine, Tufts University |

Peter Levine is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. He has a secondary appointment in the Tufts philosophy department. He was the founding deputy director (2001-6) and then the second director (2006-15) of Tisch College’s CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which he continues to oversee as an associate dean. Levine graduated from Yale in 1989 with a degree in philosophy. He studied philosophy at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, receiving his doctorate in 1992. From 1991 until 1993, he was a research associate at Common Cause. From 1993-2008, he was a member of the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. During the late 1990s, he was also Deputy Director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal. Levine has served on various boards and steering committees including AmericaSpeaks, the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Kettering Foundation, the American Bar Association Committee’s for Public Education, and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Kate Krontiris

Kate Krontiris is a social scientist, strategist, and facilitator working to transform civic life in America. In pursuit of a society where more people assert greater ownership over the decisions that govern their lives, she uses ethnographic tools to design products, policies, and services that enable a more democratic future. As a consulting user researcher for the United States Digital Service, Kate is currently exploring improvements to the experience of applying for an immigrant visa to the United States. She has just completed an embedded ethnographic investigation of what motivates everyday Americans to take civic actions, and what holds them back, in collaboration with Google. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she holds a fellowship at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard University. She holds a Masters in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Kate serves as a member of the Harlem Justice Corps Community Advisory Board and is an alumna of the AmeriCorps National Service Program.


Becca Aaronson

News Applications Developer, The Texas Tribune

Becca Aaronson develops news applications and works on special investigative projects for The Texas Tribune. As a native of Austin with a bachelor’s degree in cultural theory from Scripps College in Claremont, CA, Aaronson joined the Tribune in 2010 to help cover the 82nd legislative session, bringing with her a passion for building a new media model that promotes civic engagement. She previously interned at the Houston Chronicle. Aaronson was promoted in 2012 to cover health care for the Tribune, during which time she was nationally recognized for her coverage of women’s health and abortion politics. A founding member of the Tribune’s news apps team, Aaronson left the health care beat in 2014 to work on news apps full-time.

Adam Ambrogi

Program Director, Responsive Politics at Democracy Fund

Ambrogi is the Program Director for the Responsive Politics program at the Democracy Fund. He makes investments in organizations working to improve the quality of election administration and reform our system of campaign finance. Organizations in his portfolio include: Pew’s Election Initiatives, TurboVote, MIT’s Voting Technology Project, the Piper Fund’s Communications Collaborative, Fund for the Republic, Demos, and Cato’s Deepbills Project. Ambrogi previously worked as Chief Counsel for the US Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, served as Special Assistant and Counsel for Commissioner Ray Martinez of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), and worked in a litigation practice. Ambrogi received his bachelor of arts in Government with high distinction from the University of Virginia and he received his law degree from the University of Texas-Austin, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. Ambrogi has served on the board of the Washington Council of Lawyers and has worked with other public service organizations in the Washington, DC area.

Michael Beckel

Politics Reporter, Center for Public Integrity

Michael Beckel joined the Center for Public Integrity as a politics reporter in February 2012, where his focus is on super PACs, politically active nonprofits and the influence of money on elections. He previously worked for three years as the money-in-politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics. Beckel's exploits have taken him inside the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times, including the oral arguments of the landmark campaign finance cases Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. FEC. Earlier, he completed a year-long editorial fellowship with Mother Jones magazine, wrote for two alternative newsweeklies in Colorado and performed legislative research at Project Vote Smart. Beckel is a 2005 graduate of Colorado College.

Kelly Born

Program Officer for The Madison Initiative, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Kelly Born is a program officer for both Special Projects and the Foundation’s democracy-related grantmaking. Before joining the Hewlett Foundation, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. Prior to that, she had extensive experience consulting with both the government and private sectors. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and on Women and Development at UC Santa Cruz, where she lives. Born earned her B.A. in business with a minor in economics from Pepperdine University, where she graduated Valedictorian. She received her M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.

Catherine Bracy

Director of Community Organizing at Code for America

Catherine is the Director of Community Organizing (and former International Program Manager) at Code for America where she oversees Code for America’s civic engagement portfolio, including the Brigade program. She also founded and runs Code for All, Code for America’s international partnership program. Until November 2012, she was Director of Obama for America’s technology field office in San Francisco, the first of its kind in American political history. Prior to joining the campaign, Bracy ran the Knight Foundation’s 2011 News Challenge and before that was the administrative director at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Bracy often speaks at public events, generally on issues of technology's impact on gender and class equity. She attended Boston College from 1998 through 2002, earning a B.A. in communication, and she is currently on the Boards of Directors of The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and the Citizens Engagement Laboratory Education Fund.

R.B. Brenner

Director of the School of Journalism and the G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism at the UT Austin

R.B. Brenner is the director of the School of Journalism and the G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He arrived at UT-Austin in August 2014 from Stanford University, where he joined the faculty four years earlier after leaving The Washington Post. At The Post, his roles included Metro Editor, Sunday Editor and Deputy Universal News Editor. He was one of the primary editors of the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, and played a leadership role in merging the digital and print newsrooms. Brenner’s career as a newspaper reporter started in North Carolina, followed by reporting and editing jobs at newspapers in California and Florida. He has been an Ethics Fellow and adjunct faculty member at The Poynter Institute, which provides training to professional journalists. He was the Eugene S. Pulliam visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University in spring of 2011 and a visiting lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin in spring of 2009. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. raised in Philadelphia, and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree.

Trei Brundrett

VP of Product and Technology, Vox Media

As VP of Product and Technology since 2008, Trei Brundrett leads the team that develops the Vox Media platform, Chorus, designed from the ground-up to deliver content and community for over 150 million readers around the world. He was named to The AdWeek 50 in 2012, which wrote, "Under Brundrett's direction, Vox Media has evolved into one of the most agile Web-based publishers." Brundrett has been instrumental in growing the company from 100 sports blogs to a ground-breaking media organization with over 300 fan-centric sports media properties (SB Nation), an innovative digital culture site (The Verge) and a killer gaming site (Polygon). A founder of Handwire, a software design firm in Austin, Texas, Brundrett has over 14 years of experience leading large scale internet strategy, advertising and development projects for Fortune 500 companies, political campaigns, and media clients. He studied history and astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Brundrett has spoken at TEDxGeorgetown, SXSW, Blogs With Balls, UT School of Business and several other venues.

Dana DeBeauvoir

Clerk, Travis County Texas

County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has always been inspired by public service. Her interest led her to obtain a Master’s Degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs and ultimately to run for public office. Since her election as County Clerk in 1986, Dana has devoted herself to bringing high ethical standards, effective and cost efficient management practices, the benefits of new technology, and high quality customer service to the office of the County Clerk. DeBeauvoir’s commitment to excellence in government has received nationwide acclaim. In 2009, DeBeauvoir was named Public Official of the Year by the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials, and Clerks (NACRC). The National Association of Election Officials (Election Center) also awarded Dana with the 2009 Minute Man Award for developing a security practice that is effective, inexpensive, and easy for election officials to adopt. DeBeauvoir has served as an advisor and election observer for Bosnia, the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh, Kosovo, and the historic South Africa election that represented the end of apartheid. DeBeauvoir serves as a Texas Representative on the federal Election Commission Assistance Standards Board and on the Board of Directors and as the Election Committee Chair for the National Association of County Recorders, Elections Officials, and Clerks.

Matea Gold

Washington Post

Matea Gold is a reporter for The Washington Post covering money and politics. Prior to this she was a political reporter for the the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. She joined the Times as a reporter in 1996 and spent nearly a decade covering national and state politics as well as writing about the media. She began her career at the Los Angeles Times as a beat reporter covering East Los Angeles. She also wrote about immigration and gangs, and produced a three-part series about compulsive gambling. A graduate of UCLA, Gold was the editor in chief of the Daily Bruin. She lives in the District with her husband and two daughters.

Dr. Sharon Jarvis

Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Associate Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life

Dr. Sharon E. Jarvis (Ph.D., University of Texas- Austin, 2000) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the Moody College of Communication and Associate Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches and conducts research on political communication, persuasion and research methods. She has published books and articles at the intersection of language use, politics and persuasion. She has been the Principal Investigator on a $100,000 grant to investigate the political participation of college students and working youth (CIRCLE, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts), a co-Principal-Investigator on two related projects focusing on the politics of youth (over $550,000 in funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts), and has headed an evaluation team for an intervention in San Antonio High Schools ($500,000). She has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards and honors, including the Texas Exes Outstanding Professor for the College of Communication, the Eyes of Texas Teaching Award, the Outstanding Professor in the College of Communication, and the Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship.

Shazna Nessa

Director of Journalism at Knight Foundation

Shazna Nessa has more than 15 years of journalism experience with beginnings in Internet technology and interactive design. Previously she was a deputy managing editor at the Associated Press in New York, where she supervised editorial products and innovation. She was also part of the team that launched the website of the monthly business magazine Conde Nast Portfolio, and was later a consultant with the organization’s product group. Nessa has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York. As an adjunct professor at CUNY, she created and taught the school’s inaugural design course. Nessa was born and raised in London and has lived in Paris, New York and Palo Alto, Calif. She graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris with a Bachelor of Arts in French and English and was a 2014 John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University.

Tammy Patrick

Presidential Commission on Election Administration, Bipartisan Policy Center

Tammy Patrick is a senior advisor of the Democracy Project with the Bipartisan Policy Center, focusing on discussion on recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA). Previously, she was a federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona. In 2013, Patrick became a voting member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ working group on developing standards for a universal format for election results reporting. She is also a representative on the Mailer’s Technical Advisory Committee to the U.S. Post Office and serves as the co-chair of the Postal Task Force for the Election Center. Patrick has previously served as a member of the Election Assistance Commission’s working group on Language Assistance for Unwritten Language, as an organizer of the 2007 Native American Voter Outreach Summit, and as a member of the Election Center’s National Task Force on Education and Training. Patrick received her B.A. from Purdue University.

Kathryn Peters

Co-founder & COO, Democracy Works

Kathryn Peters is a co-founder of Democracy Works, an organization that brings the awesomeness of the Internet to the process of voting. Her belief in better democracy has taken her from campaign organizing in rural Missouri to a master’s in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government to political rights monitoring with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Kathryn’s previous experience in civic and government technology includes work for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security and the National Democratic Institute. She has been honored as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30″ in the field of law and policy, and as a “Champion of Democracy” by the National Priorities Project.

Suman Deb Roy

Lead Data Scientist at Betaworks

Suman Deb Roy is a Data Scientist at Betaworks in NYC. His tasks involve building the popularity ranking architecture of Instapaper and Digg, data-driven approaches to detect profitable seed investments, and developing novel models of user patterns on the social web. He also works on building automated back-end algorithms for growing startups to scale. Being a combination of a scientist, developer and hacker, he loves large-scale machine learning, data visualization, network analysis, and predictive modeling that helps in interpreting the patterns and relationships mined from data to people in product development and marketing. Before joining Betaworks, Suman completed his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia with a focus on understanding the vast distribution of data types on the Social Web, and how it led to observable phenomena.

Evan Smith

CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune

Evan Smith is the Editor-in-Chief, CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital news organization recently called “one of the nonprofit news sector’s runaway success stories.” The Tribune's deep coverage of Texas politics and public policy can be found at its website,, in newspapers and on TV and radio stations across the state, and in the print and online editions of the Washington Post. Since its launch in 2009, the Tribune has won international acclaim and numerous honors, including nine Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Previously Evan spent nearly 18 years at Texas Monthly, including eight years as Editor and a year as President and Editor-in-Chief.

Ashley Spillane

President, Rock the Vote

Ashley Spillane is President of Rock the Vote, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committed to engaging young people in the political process by educating, registering, and turning them out to vote. Prior to Rock the Vote, Spillane spearheaded the creation of an interactive online platform at The Atlas Project, giving campaigns and organizations access to critical data and tools needed to run smart, strategic political programs. Spillane worked on numerous electoral campaigns across the country, including presidential, gubernatorial and congressional campaigns. Spillane was featured in Elle Magazine and Self Magazine for her innovative political work, yoga practice, and love of travel. She has also been named a Politico Women Rule ambassador; a “Change Agent” on Marie Claire’s second annual New Guard: 50 Most Connected Women in America list; and one of Campaign & Elections’ “Rising Stars.” Ashley is a Massachusetts native and graduated from George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs.

Matt Stempeck

Director of Civic Technology, Microsoft

As Microsoft’s Director of Civic Technology in New York City, Matt leads strategic outreach and develops creative engagement opportunities to create social change and grow the civic technology ecosystem. Previously, Matt researched and designed technologies for civic impact at non-profits, startups, consultancies, and other technology companies. He has a Master's of Science from the MIT Media Lab, where he quantified global media attention to stories like Trayvon Martin, studied the emerging field of tech-driven peer-to-peer humanitarian aid, and built award-winning creative tools to fight misinformation online. Prior to MIT, Matt led online campaigns, communications, and tech trainings for the New Organizing Institute, Americans for Campaign Reform, and EchoDitto. Matt holds an MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA with honors from the University of Maryland College Park. He grew up outside of Boston and has also lived in London, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

Russell Stevens

Research Strategist, Laboratory for Social Machines

Russell is a senior advisor focused on research planning and deployment for a new MIT Media Lab group designing media technologies that tackle complex social problems. The Laboratory for Social Machines is focused on understanding the human networks that underpin villages, cities, and countries around the world, then empowering them with tools that make corresponding social systems [government, schools, elections] more responsive. Russell hails from Canton, Massachussetts and received a Master in Public Policy from Harvard prior to a career in communications strategy.

Talia Stroud

Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies at UT Austin

Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud (Ph.D., Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Assistant Director of Research at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin. Since 2012, Stroud has directed the grant-funded Engaging News Project, which examines commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways of improving online news coverage. In 2014-15, she was a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University. Stroud is interested in how the media affect our political behaviors and attitudes and how our political behaviors and attitudes affect our media use. Her research has appeared in Political Communication, Journal of Communication, Political Behavior, Public Opinion Quarterly, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Stroud twice received the Outstanding Faculty Member Award from the Communication Studies Graduate Community and was invited to the Society for Teaching Excellence at the University of Texas.

Troy Thibodeaux

Interactive Newsroom Technology Editor at Associated Press

Troy Thibodeaux is an award-winning journalist and developer based in New Orleans. As interactive newsroom technology editor at the Associated Press, Thibodeaux leads a team of programmer-journalists to create groundbreaking journalism with a focus on newsroom tools, data-driven stories, and interactive features. Thibodeaux has a blend of editorial and programming skills, specifically focused around data journalism, which has been demonstrated since joining the AP in 2007 at the Washington Bureau. Thibodeaux was part of the award-winning Economic Stress Index in 2009, a seminal project for the AP. Most recently, thanks to Thibodeaux’s foresight around journalism tools, the Associated Press was awarded a second Knight grant for an idea he devised to build a tool to allow journalists to more easily mash up geographic data with other data sets. Thibodeaux earned his Bachelors in English and Philosophy at Notre Dame University and gained his PhD in English and American Literature from New York University.

Ken Vogel

Chief Investigative Reporter, Politico

Ken Vogel tracks the confluence of money, politics and influence for Politico. He has covered politics and government at all levels, from small-town school boards to the presidential campaign trail. Before joining POLITICO prior to its 2007 launch, Vogel reported for numerous papers including The News Tribune, The Times Leader, and The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Vogel spent most of 2006 learning about the U.S. Congress from the inside through an American Political Science Association fellowship that let him work on the staffs of two House committees. He's won awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Vogel has analyzed politics on CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, National Public Radio and radio and television stations around the country. He grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and lives with his wife in Alexandria, VA.

Sisi Wei

News Applications Developer at ProPublica

Sisi Wei joined ProPublica in 2012 as an investigative journalist and developer, creating news applications and interactive graphics that serve the public interest. Her work, which has ranged from investigating the Chinese firewall to patient privacy, has won numerous design and infographics awards, including a Medal at Malofiej, an international infographics competition, and back-to-back Society of News Design Awards of Excellence for her personal portfolio. Wei is also one of the leading minds in journalism on newsgames. In addition to her work at ProPublica, she teaches at New York University, The New School and CUNY. Prior to joining ProPublica, Wei designed and developed data-driven interactive graphics as a Graphics Editor at the Washington Post, where her work on campaign finance won the 2013 Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. Wei is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact workshop focused on teaching journalists how to code. Wei graduated from Northwestern University with majors in journalism, philosophy and legal studies.