In the 2016 presidential election, over 40 percent of eligible voters did not vote. Voices from all sides are pleading with them to do better this year. This is “the most important election of our entire lifetime,” said former President Barack Obama at a recent campaign event. President Trump went further at the Republican National Convention, calling it “the most important election in U.S. history.”

New rules about how and when to vote abound, and for many voters the 2020 election is as confusing as it is consequential. When early voting began in Houston, a Rice University survey found that two-thirds of the voters polled still did not know how to acquire a mail-in ballot. Over half did not know how to return one.

A national survey by YouGov polled voters in states in which mail-in ballots are counted only if they are received by election day. Forty-two percent thought it was possible that an election day postmark would be good enough.

Navigating the ballot itself is another issue. A ballot is still counted when a voter leaves down-ballot races blank, and it might be one form of civic responsibility for a voter to skip over something they don’t really understand.

However, the events of the past year have underscored how much local officials and their decisions affect public health, housing, economic opportunity, justice, and social and racial equity. Voters who don’t complete their ballots could be losing important opportunities for change.

BallotReady offers a one-stop place for voters to find out about how and where to vote and polling place, to get a sample ballot for their town with nonpartisan information on every race and measure.

Informing and Engaging 

For years, BallotReady, an online portal launched by two University of Chicago classmates, has been building an online resource where any voter, in any community, can find everything they need to know to participate in an election. Its goal is to help 50 million Americans by November.

In 2015, BallotReady co-founders Alex Niemczewski and Aviva Rosman won the University of Chicago’s John Edwardson Social New Venture Challenge. Since that time, they have worked to continuously evolve the site and add more tools and data sources, backed by the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation and the Knight Foundation.

“We are a place where you can go before you vote, type in your address and see everything on your ballot, compare candidates based on their stances on issues, biography and endorsements,” said Rosman. “Everything is non-partisan and linked back to its source.”

The pandemic has forced a significant expansion of this work, with states adopting new rules for voting by mail, early voting, drop boxes and more. In response to these changes and the questions they have raised, BallotReady built a tool to help voters request a ballot and make a plan to return it.

“This is powered by a hundred researchers who are calling individual counties and municipalities,” said Rosman. “This data is stored at a very local level, and a lot of times it’s not digital.” To fill the gap, BallotReady created a database containing the information gathered by its researchers and the processes necessary for voters to access it, she says.

An award from the University of Chicago’s John Edwardson Social New Venture Challenge helped founders Aviva Rosmani (left) and  Alex Niemczewsk launch BallotReady. (Photo courtesy of BallotReady)

SuperVoters and Ballot Parties

Rosman and her team have created additional resources for engaging voters. Recognizing that social communities often include individuals that others turn to for advice about voting, BallotReady created a “SuperVoter” tool kit.

SuperVoters can create an account, annotate a ballot with comments that explain their voting preferences, and then share it with friends or on social media. Resources are also available for SuperVoters (and others) to host an interactive online “Ballot Party.” 

BallotReady partners with organizations to help them in their own voter outreach, from resources for social media campaigns to a no-cost widget that allows them to set up a BallotReady “election center” on their own website. “This year, we’re working with Snapchat, Tinder, CBS Viacom, the Miami Heat and a bunch of other groups to power their tools and actions guides,” said Rosman.

BallotReady has also worked with newspapers, NPR stations and community groups to provide software tools that allow them to conduct their own candidate surveys. It has developed voting and elections curriculum for students in grades 8-12.

The BallotReady Vote Center. (Image courtesy of BallotReady)

The Home Stretch

It’s still possible to request a mail-in ballot in some states, but Rosman doesn’t recommend that in view of uncertainties regarding mail delivery. “We’re trying to be extra careful in that recommendation,” she said.

The insight that BallotReady offers regarding candidates and issues from the top to the bottom of every ballot, its tools for assisting friends and co-workers, information about returning ballots, dropbox locations and more, are vital at this time.

“The goal was to be a one-stop for everything you might need to know before you vote,” said Rosman. “This year, we’ve gotten better, our data is more robust and that’s why we’re seeing so many more users.”