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Steve Murch sold his startup BigOven and went on to develop a candidate matchmaking tool called Alignvote. The rollout has sparked a debate in Seattle politics. (GeekWire File Photo)

A new app designed to match voters with candidates whose values they share has become a lightning rod in an upcoming Seattle election, illustrating the importance of trust and transparency for technologists eager to bring new approaches to divisive political issues across the country.

The controversy started brewing about two weeks ago when City Council candidate Christopher Peguero received an email from a new organization called Alignvote asking him to fill out a questionnaire. He was in the process of reviewing “hundreds” of questionnaires as he seeks endorsements from various organizations. This one could be done at home in just a few minutes so he went ahead and filled it out.

Christopher Peguero is running for Seattle City Council in District 2. (Photo courtesy of Peguero’s campaign)

A few days later, Peguero was surprised to learn about Alignvote’s origin story. Startup vet Steve Murch built the tool to help voters find out which candidates they align with on Seattle’s most pressing issues.

Related: Which candidates do you align with? Seattle startup vet provides answers with new matchmaking site

In addition to his work in tech, Murch volunteers for Speak Out Seattle, a polarizing community advocacy group. Peguero boycotted candidate forums hosted by Speak Out Seattle over concerns about the group’s position on homelessness and what he believes to be its connections to another, more controversial, organization called Safe Seattle.

[Editor’s Note: In a Facebook post after this story was published, Murch reiterated that he is not affiliated with Safe Seattle. We’ve updated this post to clarify this point. Murch also questioned other aspects of GeekWire’s characterization of the story. Read his post in full below.]

After Murch revealed that he was behind Alignvote, “I was pretty angry because I had already opted not to take part in the candidate forums,” Peguero told GeekWire.

Murch did conceal his identity during the five-day period in which he was sending the questionnaire to candidates. He says he did so because he worried his association with Speak Out Seattle would automatically disqualify the tool in the eyes of some candidates. Peguero ultimately confirmed his concern by asking to be removed from Alignvote.

In a blog post responding to concerns raised by Peguero and others, Murch said it was “dishonest and cynical” to conflate Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle.

“I am in no way part of the leadership or editorial team, nor have I posted much of substance (certainly nothing that would remotely be considered hate) on that page,” he wrote of the Safe Seattle Facebook group.

While both organizations have their critics, Safe Seattle is considered more extreme. The group made headlines when its members mapped the locations of people living in tents and vehicles. Safe Seattle has a reputation for vitriolic rhetoric and amplifying stories of crime tied to homelessness.

Seattle rapper Matt “Spek” Watson documented early connections between the two groups, which Speak Out Seattle denies. Watson has also been critical of Alignvote since it launched.

Laura Loe, a volunteer housing advocate who founded a grassroots organizing collective called Share The Cities, was initially excited about Alignvote.

“I was interested in how it might help folks narrow down their choices to a ‘top three,'” she said in an email. “This could help some people take a deeper look at candidates who aren’t just the usual names in the media, and a tool that isn’t based on donation totals or endorsements, but ideas — that is something exciting.”

But Loe grew concerned when she learned about Murch’s advocacy work.

“We aren’t talking about a quiz about ‘which Doritos flavor are you,'” she said. “We are talking about a City Council that will shape our city for the next four years.”

Steve Murch at the end of an organized bike ride from Seattle to Vancouver. (Photo by Edith Rothenburg).

Both Loe and Watson have long been critical of Speak Out Seattle and called on candidates to boycott the forums that the organization hosted.

In a message to GeekWire, Speak Out Seattle founding member Elisabeth James described the group as “an all volunteer grassroots nonprofit which supports housing first, increased spending on addiction and mental health and improved offender diversion programs to help people achieve their full potentials and protect the public.”

Though Alignvote has vocal skeptics, most of the Seattle City Council candidates have participated in the tool. About 40 of 54 candidates have confirmed their political positions on the Alignvote platform, according to Murch. The tool has also seen early traction with voters. About 3,000 surveys had been filled out as of June 15.

In an interview with GeekWire, Murch reiterated that he has no relationship with Safe Seattle and wishes the group would retract certain “snarky” and “sometimes mean-spirited” Facebook posts.

Murch is an active volunteer with Speak Out Seattle, however. He filmed and indexed each of the City Council forums that the organization hosted. The questions Alignvote poses to candidates and voters largely come from these forums.

The Alignvote questionnaire.

“The Alignvote platform is equitable to all candidates, and very simply measures distance between the views that you, the voter, express and the views that the candidates have on the questions provided,” Murch wrote in a blog post. “It also allows candidates to elaborate upon their answers if they so choose.”

Peguero doesn’t think it’s that simple. He worries that out of context, the questions will lead voters to believe they align with more conservative candidates.

“The questions may be straightforward but you have to understand what those policies mean,” he said. “When you go into the tool and answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about that question or policy, that will lead you to a certain candidate. If you are not informed, that will lead you to a candidate who is really not aligned with what your values or concerns are.”

Updated on June 20 with statement from Speak Out Seattle and additional information about the group’s opponents.

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