Alumni rely on UChicago mentors, resources in launching online voter guide

Three University of Chicago alumni—making use of University resources that support budding entrepreneurs, technology startups and robust political thought—have developed an easy-to-use, nonpartisan online voter guide that’s making a big splash this election year.

BallotReady provides detailed, unbiased information on every single candidate from the top of the ballot to the bottom, helping voters make well-reasoned choices for school boards, county assessors or even mosquito abatement districts.

The service will be rolled out to 25 states in its first 18 months, and within a few years, “we want to cover every race, every candidate, every election” nationwide, said Alex Niemczewski, AB’09, BallotReady’s CEO and co-founder.

It’s a tall order, but Niemczewski and another co-founder, COO Aviva Rosman, AB’10, MPP’16, say their aggressive rollout schedule already is meeting with great success. The third co-founder is Sebastian Ellefson, AB’03, director of content.

Niemczewski and Rosman have discovered that almost all voters, even politically savvy ones as community activists, journalists or political science professors, share a dirty little secret: Sometimes when they examine their ballots, they discover they’re unfamiliar with some of the candidates or offices.

Studies show that 30 percent of voters leave a portion of their ballot blank. Others admit to making at least some selections based on a candidate’s gender, ethnic background or other random, even whimsical, criteria.

“People feel bad, but you shouldn’t,” Niemczewski said. It can be extremely difficult to research all the candidates in advance because ballots differ from one neighborhood to another depending on overlapping agency jurisdictions. Also, candidates running for local offices rarely draw much media attention and might not have a website or even a campaign brochure to share with voters.

Voter-specific ballots

Two things distinguish BallotReady from voters guides put out by civic groups or local media: the ability to easily create a voter’s specific ballot in advance, and the depth of solid information available on every single candidate.

Visitors to the free site type in their street addresses and are walked through every race they will decide, seeing a detailed biography of each candidate, statements of their policy positions and links to their social media sites.

BallotReady hires college students to gather the candidate information in days-long “hackathons” that Niemczewski describes as “structured crowd-sourcing.” The group also partners with civic groups that rate the candidates or review judges seeking retention.

Every piece of candidate information on the site is linked directly to its source—a newspaper article, campaign website, civic organization’s voter guide—so voters can find more information or judge its veracity, Niemczewski said.

BallotReady allows voters to save their list of preferred candidates to use in the voting booth.

The UChicago Institute of Politics provided some seed money to build the BallotReady site, and IOP Director David Axelrod introduced Niemczewski and Rosman to top Republican and Democratic contacts. Axelrod and Ray LaHood, former Congressman and Secretary of Transportation, serve on the group’s advisory board.

BallotReady joined the University-affiliated Chicago Innovation Exchange to enjoy work space, support and guidance. Its founders took part in the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s I-Corps program, which provided a $2,500 National Science Foundation grant, training in entrepreneurial skills and mentorship. A new gift from Michael Polsky has expanded and unified the Polsky Center, placing UChicagoTech and the Chicago Innovation Exchange, which will be renamed the Polsky Innovation Exchange, under a single umbrella.

Voter feedback

BallotReady launched in December 2014 with candidate information for the 2015 Chicago mayoral election. Developers alerted voters through word of mouth and small ads, and more than 400 voters used the site and provided helpful feedback.

This year, with the presidential race claiming the nation’s attention, BallotReady covers elections in Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, New Hampshire and Maryland so voters can research their township boards, school referendums and local comptroller candidates as well.

“Maryland has 957 candidates, and we’re covering all of them,” Niemczewski said.

More than 64,000 Illinois voters used the site before voting in the March 15 primary—an estimated 17,000 of them visited on the election day itself.

BallotReady’s staff interacts with voters and answers all kinds of government questions on the service’s blog and Facebook page with a goal of keeping citizens engaged throughout the year, not just at election time. Niemczewski said they’ve already seen instances of candidates being influenced by BallotReady to more openly promote their views on issues that voters are researching.

In May 2015, BallotReady won $30,000 in the Booth School’s John Edwardson Social New Venture Challenge, which helps launch startups with a social impact mission. The Knight Foundation and the Chicago Harris Center for Policy Entrepreneurship also provided startup funds in 2015.

“The University has been an incredible place to launch this,” Rosman said.

Promoting future growth

In March 2016, Niemczewski and Rosman were awarded $10,000 from the National Public Policy Challenge. They also were among three startups awarded a share of the UChicago Innovation Fund on June 1.

“It has been great to be able to watch and support their growth,” said Chicago Innovation Exchange Executive Director John Flavin.

But BallotReady won’t be living on seed money forever. Niemczewski said developers are looking at creating tools to partially automate the fact-gathering process and are investigating the idea of selling voter behavior data to campaigns to help fund the service.

“We’ll have more voter behavior info than anyone else,” she said.

The service is also experimenting with allowing candidates to put ads on their own profile pages, though not anywhere else on the site.

Institute of Politics Executive Director Steve Edwards describes BallotReady’s creators as “really smart, innovative developers” who are providing “a tremendous service to voters.”

Helping the group launch the website is “a great expression of our mission,” he said.