Two women from Chicago have a plan to fix America’s voter turnout problem

A vote for no one is a vote wasted.
A vote for no one is a vote wasted.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Even before they vote in the elections on Nov. 3, voters in Kentucky, Virginia, and Indianapolis will be the first in the country to pass judgement on BallotReady, a new political website that hopes to empower voters with information on every candidate on the ballot—including on often overlooked local positions.

BallotReady, which just launched, is the idea of two young Chicago-based women, Alex Niemczewski and Aviva Rosman. The idea of a comprehensive online voter guide has found traction—the University of Chicago’s non-partisan Institute of Politics (IOP) provided seed funding and IOP founder David Axelrod is now on BallotReady’s board of directors. This May, BallotReady won first place at the Social Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. BallotReady is partnering with political science departments at nine universities to help collect and vet data.

While voters are deluged with information about national, state and some local candidates, BallotReady’s research showed that voters often knew little about many local offices and candidates. The challenge was twofold: give voters an easy way to access comprehensive information in high profile races; and raise voter awareness about candidates and their positions in little covered local races.

The site aims to provide the information in a user friendly fashion: type in your ZIP code and it promises instant information on every candidate on the ballot in the area, including voting records, endorsing organizations and news articles. All the data is linked to the original source.

Niemczewski came up with the idea for an online voter guide when she went to vote and realized that she knew nothing about a lot of candidates on the ballot. “I felt bad and tried looking up the information later,” she said. “When I realized it wasn’t easy, I thought about coding it myself.” Rosman had a similar experience. “It was like coming in to take a test that you are completely unprepared for,” she said, recalling the long list of candidates on her ballot.

Rosman was also running as a candidate for her Local School Council (LSC). The LSC oversees the budget and other school issues that are significant for the local community but most people, including Niemczewski who lived in the same neighborhood, were unaware that they could vote for LSC members. “I tried to get people to vote for me but they didn’t know that they could vote,” said Rosman.

As the idea began to take shape, Niemczewski and Rosman talked to political reporters and political science professors in Chicago, experts in politics and government. They discovered that even those immersed in studying politics more often than not knew little about the candidates for their local wards and other local races. “It validated our thinking,” said Niemczewski.

Although the site is launching in three geographic areas, Kentucky is the primary focus for BallotReady’s launch. At first, the state seems to be an odd choice to test an online site. The US census in 2013 estimated that only 79% of households in the state owned computers and only 69% of households subscribed to broadband internet, both below the national average. Comedian John Oliver memorably mocked the state’s internet literacy during Mitch McConnell’s senate campaign last year. “The people of Kentucky deserve everyone’s sympathy, or at least the one’s with Internet access,” Oliver said. “Here’s an interesting fact: 28% of Kentuckians don’t have any online access, a commodity the UN had deemed a basic human right.” (As it turns out, Politifact crosschecked the stat and found that 28% of Kentuckians choose not to access the internet; it’s not that they can’t get access.)

This year though, Kentucky is a particularly good testing ground for a political site. The state’s gubernatorial race is a toss-up, which is likely to spark additional voter interest. Says Niemczewski, “It’s a really good place for us; we’ve gotten so much excitement from people there. We think BallotReady will be valuable as voters look for information.”

Meanwhile, if Chicago candidates are any indication, candidates in local races in Kentucky, Virginia, and Indianapolis might be feeling a mix of anticipation and anxiety as BallotReady arrives in their areas.

In Chicago, one candidate for a local race was delighted to learn that a comprehensive online voter guide was on the way. His reasoning? In Chicago, name placement on the ballot is determined by lottery. The candidate found his name in last place, virtually guaranteeing a loss (He did lose). By providing more information to voters, BallotReady could reduce the impact of the placement lottery.

Rosman and Niemczewski’s goal is to launch BallotReady nationwide in time for the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. Said Rosman, “Over 30% of voters do not fill out their entire ballot because they don’t feel informed. If we could decrease that percentage, we would be happy.”

Meanwhile, as the site goes live, the cofounders will be spending a lot of time in Kentucky trying to figure out if more information really can galvanize higher voting percentages.