Uninformed Voters Are a Problem. This May Be a Solution.

A new award-winning website aims to better educate voters about downballot races, which people often know little (if anything) about.
by | March 23, 2016
Voters wait in line to cast their ballot in Arizona's presidential primary election. (AP/Matt York)

When voters head to the polls, they’re often confronted with a long list of downballot races they don't know anything about. Even moderately informed voters may find themselves staring blankly at names of candidates for school board seats, judgeships, neighborhood commissions and so on.

Some voters might make guesses or vote based on candidates’ names. Others may choose to leave part of their ballot blank. It can be a frustrating process, leaving some voters to skip elections altogether.

One new startup aims to change that and bridge the gap of voter awareness of downballot races. BallotReady, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago, offers comprehensive nonpartisan voter guides on local elections in addition to state and national races.

The data-driven project, run by two Chicago-area women, earned the top prize Sunday at the National Public Policy Challenge in Philadelphia. Teams from 10 different schools presented policy proposals at the event, hosted by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and Governing.

The BallotReady website, which launched last year, covered the recent Illinois primary election and will soon expand to include all races in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire and Virginia for the November general election. This year, BallotReady’s founders have set an ambitious target: inform a million voters.

“We want to make it easy to vote in every race in every election,” said Alex Niemczewski, BallotReady’s CEO. “We also see opportunity for people to become more engaged in local politics in between elections.”

Niemczewski co-founded the site with Aviva Rosman, a University of Chicago graduate student, after the two of them had voted in an election and realized how little voter information existed.

A BallotReady user enters his street address and then is presented with a list of all the elections that will appear on his ballot, along with candidate names, biographies, endorsements and their views on prominent issues. A key feature allows for quick comparisons of candidates on issues ranging from gun control to the environment. Users save their list of selected candidates, which they can then print out or pull up on their smartphones when they go vote.

In a few instances, BallotReady has already led candidates to promote their views on issues more openly. While most candidates maintain websites or Facebook pages, some fail to publish their policy positions, particularly on more controversial issues. Niemczewski said they’ve experienced success in influencing candidates’ behaviors, with some updating their campaign websites after seeing their positions were missing on BallotReady. BallotReady aggregates information from other websites and links each candidate’s stance or endorsement to a published source; the group does not interview candidates.

“The most important thing for us is that voters know we’re a trustworthy source,” said Rosman, BallotReady’s chief operating officer. “Every piece of information is gathered in the exact same way to ensure that no bias enters into the content collection process.”

Other online voter guides publish similar information but typically don’t cover all downballot races, or they often lack detailed information on candidates.

Early results -- although limited -- suggest voters are interested in learning about more than just high-profile contests. The day before the Illinois primary, BallotReady users spent an average of 8 minutes and 40 seconds on the website researching an average of 12 races, according to Niemczewski. Last year, following an initial pilot program covering the Chicago mayoral runoff, a subsequent analysis of voter data estimated that 72 percent of Chicagoans visiting the website voted.

Officials in jurisdictions across the country have long lamented the low levels of voter engagement in local elections, an issue BallotReady seeks to help address. Nationally, voter turnout for local races in off-cycle election years has steadily declined over the past several decades. Mayoral elections in places like Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia have seen turnout drop by more than half since the 1970s.

Niemczewski and Rosman further hope to increase voter interest among millennials, a demographic that often stays home during nonpresidential election years. BallotReady provides a way for younger voters to research candidates on their phones, a platform they’re familiar with. Niemczewski and Rosman partnered with the League of Women Voters and other civic groups to market BallotReady, while also relying on highly targeted social media advertisements.

Niemczewski says she has received a lot of emails from older voters, too, who print out their saved ballots before voting.

To scale up the website, Niemczewski and Rosman incorporated BallotReady as a for-profit entity, a move they say will raise capital more quickly than a nonprofit. They eventually plan to add additional candidate information -- such as voting records and campaign donations -- and build out the website to cover all 50 states.

Watch Niemczewski and Rosman discuss their startup website: