If you’re like a lot of voters in the United States, the whirlwind of candidates, issues and proposed bills during election season probably makes you weary. It can be confusing and overwhelming to sift through the gobs of sound bites and headlines geared toward big-name candidates in the search for solid information that will help you decide who and what to vote for. But those days may soon be over as a new startup, called BallotReady, launches across the nation to help people make more informed decisions in the voting booth.
Designed with convenience in mind, the site aims to make it easy for voters to quickly tune into current issues and political candidates in their region. Users enter their address and are directed to the most current ballot in their voting district, compiled from the candidates and issues they will soon be voting on. From there, users can do side-by-side comparisons of candidates and where they stand on various issues, including budget, diversity, guns and technology. The site also includes a snapshot of each candidate’s experience (either professional or political), education, endorsements, personal information and professional memberships.
After reviewing the information, voters can make preliminary selections to refer to in the voting booth, either by printing them out or using their mobile phone. In essence, it works as an election-day cheat sheet so voters can make confident decisions on every issue on the ballot.
Founders Alex Niemczewski and Aviva Rosman were inspired to create BallotReady after a personal wake-up call on voter awareness. When Rosman was running for local office and asked Niemczewski for her vote, Niemczewski was shocked to learn that an election was taking place. Investigating the issue further, in part by conducting interviews with 150 voters, they discovered key insights into what people really care about when voting and how often they make informed decisions.
The findings illustrated a grim reality: Up to 30 percent of voters leave part of the ballot blank. During local elections, voters are most influenced by candidates’ gender, ethnicity and order on the ballot — candidates listed first typically receive 2 percent more votes than others.
But do local elections really make that big of a difference in the long run? Actually, yes, especially when you consider that 96 percent of all elected officials are elected locally. Realizing a need for better local resources, Niemczewski and Rosman partnered with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics to launch a pilot website for the mayoral election in Chicago. From there, word quickly spread about BallotReady and the role it can play in filling the information gap for voters.
“We received additional funding from the Knight Foundation, National Science Foundation and Chicago Harris Center for Policy Entrepreneurship, which allowed us to launch last fall in Kentucky and Virginia,” Niemczewski said. “From there, we got a very inspiring response where our users rated us 4.4 out of 5 on ease of use and we got a ton of voters to the site.”
While having information on candidates is important, so is knowing where that information is sourced. BallotReady partners with university political science departments to gather and review information from every source possible, including candidate websites, Facebook pages, endorsing organizations, news media articles and interviews, and county clerks’ offices. For super-local candidates who do not have an online presence, BallotReady teams reach out via phone or email to gather information. The source for each piece of information on the website is clearly noted to maintain transparency with voters.
As Niemczewski pointed out, the site’s information collection and posting process helps to ensure that it remains nonpartisan. Voters will find data from diverse sources on the site — and in the end, it’s up to the voter to use that information to form a personal opinion. “We don’t say, ‘We think this candidate is the best,’ or ‘This candidate is lying here,’” she said. “Sometimes we’ll have candidates who say one thing on a website and another thing in a news interview. We put everything on the site and allow users to sift through it.”
In an effort to continue testing and developing strategies to best reach voters, BallotReady is in the midst of expanding into Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia, Colorado, Florida and New Hampshire. The team chose these six states because of their diverse demographics and geography to best understand the variance in election laws and voter preferences.
One of their biggest lessons learned so far? States can operate very differently. For example, BallotReady recently had to purchase a fax machine because a handful of jurisdictions still do not use email.
From a local government perspective, there’s a huge need for the data aggregated from a site like BallotReady. According to Tim Nolan, senior applications manager for Collin County, Texas, a streamlined, easy-to-navigate resource could significantly improve the process for local voters. As a leader in the Collin County GIS department, Nolan is experienced with bridging the gap between local voter information and technology, having launched a Voter Line Wait Application to help reduce voter wait times. “Right now, it’s voter overload,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what everything is that you’re receiving, from brochures to mailers. It’d be nice to have a nonpartisan view of the facts to compare the candidates you prefer.”
Nolan hypothesized that BallotReady may serve as a useful tool to educate and engage voters with government-supplied election information. “The best way that governments can contribute, in my opinion, is to make our voter information available in a way that a product like BallotReady can consume,” he said. “Voter registration and ballot information needs to be part of every government’s open data suite. BallotReady becomes an easy user interface to the government’s voter data.”
In other words, BallotReady may fill the gap in government technology when it comes to being user-friendly or easily accessible. “The voter data will always start at the government level,” Nolan said. “BallotReady, and other applications like it, can prepare the data in a useful way. How governments make the data ready for other applications will be the best initiative. The government creates the data, BallotReady makes that information consumable, and the voter benefits.”
So why don’t governments have a system like this in place? “First, the challenge is the sheer volume of information you have to collect and how detailed the information needs to be. If you’re looking at a city council person in a rural area, it’s hard to capture that information. Each state and entity would need to have access to that at their local elections,” explained Nolan. “If BallotReady is deemed nonpartisan among all parties, it would be a fine partner. States have certain rules on how they run their elections, so as long as it meets their requirements, then it would be a great source.”
That’s something the founders of BallotReady hope to make a reality as they continue to scale and grow state by state. They expect the platform to be available in every state by 2020 and plan to establish the site as a resource for state and local governments in the future. As BallotReady continues to collect aggregate data on what issues voters in specific districts care about, the company plans to collaborate with governments to share that information in the most useful way possible to each agency. The data will be sold to the public sector as a way to generate revenue to ensure that the website’s information remains free for voters.
“Democracy takes two sides: candidates and elected officials who are reflecting their constituents’ values, and voters. We are collecting data on what people care about and in a way to be used by local governments or campaigns themselves,” Niemczewski said. “Having a better idea of what constituents care about and value for their communities will help elected officials represent them better and make our communities significantly better.”
Julia McCandless is a journalist passionate about finding the story and telling it well. She currently works as a freelance journalist and communications expert in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son.