Technologies that Matter: How BallotReady is Educating Voters
BallotReady is an online voting guide for local, state, and federal elections. It provides a free guide with information on more than 20,000 candidates across 25 states and Washington, D.C. that helps voters make better-informed decisions. The Director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, David Axelrod, sits on the company’s board of advisors, along with Republican political strategist Mike Murphy. Chicago Policy Review sat down with Alex Niemczewski, a co-founder and CEO of BallotReady, to learn about how BallotReady influences voters’ decisions and the changing technological landscape in politics and government. Aviva Rosman, who is the co-founder and COO of BallotReady, is a Harris School alum.
How did voters make decisions about their local candidates before BallotReady? Were there problems that voters faced when it came to making decisions?
Many voters guess and leave blanks [on their ballot]. Across the U.S., approximately 30 percent of voters fail to complete their ballot, or they don’t even show up to vote in local elections. In mayoral elections, the median age of voters is 60. Sometimes voters guess based on heuristics such as party affiliation, race or ethnicity, gender, or order on the ballot. When a candidate is listed first on the ballot, a study showed that [the candidate] can get a five percent increase in votes.
What led you to come up with an idea like BallotReady?
I had the experience that I now know many people have: In 2012, I went into the voting booth ready to vote for president, but then saw a ballot with all of these offices where I didn’t know what they did or were responsible for (e.g. Comptroller, Water Reclamation Commissioner) and all these names I had never heard of before. I left feeling guilty and dejected that I didn’t use my vote to its full potential. So in 2014, when I was preparing for the midterms, I made a crude version of the site for myself.
BallotReady makes use of data that is available to the public. How important is the use of open data for civic engagement efforts? Do you think as open data becomes more available, the social and economic impact of open data will increase?
We use civic data to figure out who is on the ballot and to match voters with the ballot that reflects all the districts they live in. Unfortunately for us, not all of the data we collect is open. It’s not even all free. Data that we’ve had to pay for includes: local district boundaries or maps and lists of candidates on the ballot. This means that it takes us more time and money to find this—we need to make phone calls, send faxes and sometimes physically go to boards of elections’ offices. So we’re all for more open data, it would help us cover more elections faster and provide more information on candidates.
Like BallotReady, other apps and technology are making waves in the public sector and especially the policy sphere. In a sector dominated by bureaucracy, do you think technology has the potential to change the way things are done?
I think government rightfully is slower moving than the private sector. It is their job to contend with opposing interests and they have a limited budget. With that said, they need to be pushed. I’m most hopeful about efforts that connect government with resources in technology, such as the U.S. Digital Service and community groups like Chi Hack Night, where technologists and public sector folks can come together to solve big problems.
Do you think the most recent presidential election could change people’s attitudes or perceptions about data-driven decision making?
The polling industry has been in trouble for a while now, with big mistakes in the last couple of years: Brexit, last fall’s Kentucky gubernatorial election, and the elections in Greece. Some of that is because the majority of people don’t use landlines now and that’s how polls used to be so effective. Data-driven decision-making is used in many other industries successfully, so I think it will improve in politics, but not without some growing pains first.
What are your future plans with BallotReady? Do you want to scale it or extend the range of services offered by your organization regarding elections?
Eventually BallotReady will cover every election in every country. I used to think we would cover all 50 states by 2020, but we learned so much in the past few months that I now think we can do it by 2018. For example, we learned how to better collect information from boards of elections and how to better automate our systems. We also want to be a resource for people, in-between elections, on what they can do to be politically active and [to] learn about what their local elected officials are doing.
Featured photo: cc/(jdwfoto, photo ID: 178744711, from iStock by Getty Images)