Struggling to fill out your ballot? How one startup is trying to help

Alumni-founded BallotReady aims to educate voters on little-known issues, candidates

When Aviva Rosman decided to run for local office in 2014, she got in touch with a friend from the University of Chicago and asked if she could have her vote.

Her reply changed both of their lives: Of course, but I didn’t even know the election was taking place.

Rosman, AB’10, MPP’16, and that friend, Alex Niemczewski, AB’09, set out to build a website that could educate voters about the down-ballot candidates and issues—as well as the popular ones. In response, they co-founded BallotReady in 2015, after winning UChicago’s John Edwardson, ‘72, Social New Venture Challenge that supports startup companies.

“Across the country, there are over a half-million elected officials, and 96% of them are elected at a local level. But we know from research and personal experience that when most people go and vote, they don’t have the information to make informed decisions,” said Rosman, BallotReady’s chief operating officer. “These half-million officials have a huge effect on our daily lives in terms of our roads, schools and environment. It’s crazy we’re electing them based on guesses... This has huge potential for change in terms of how our communities are represented and the policies that result.”

Since its founding, BallotReady has reached more than 9 million voters, covered 95,000 candidates and raised more than $2.2 million for its efforts. It also sells subscriptions to a separate white-label platform for PACs, advocacy group, campaigns, and media groups to create tools to inform and turn out voters.

BallotReady has grown to 20 employees and will put more than 100 researchers to work aggregating information from candidate websites, social media, press, endorsers and board of elections. In 2020, BallotReady is setting its sights on an ambitious goal: reaching 50 million people and covering every U.S. primary.

Jump-start from the SNVC

They said winning the Social New Venture Challenge prepared them for growth. Operated by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, along with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the SNVC is the social impact track of the University’s business launch competition, the Edward L. Kaplan, '71, New Venture Challenge.

Over 10 years, the SNVC has jump-started more than 100 nonprofit and for-profit ventures with social missions that went on to raise more than $35 million. The SNVC helped BallotReady’s founders hone their business pitch, think through what specific problem they were trying to solve, how to talk about it and how to create a solution.

“The SNVC enabled us to get partners, to get potential customers on board, refined how we talked about our venture and helped us pitch investors,” Rosman said. “The fact that I was able to join BallotReady full time after graduation with a salary—we couldn’t have done that without the SNVC.”

Back then, BallotReady founders piloted a study to show how their concept would work. They made paper voting guides for the Chicago mayoral runoff, and locals took notice.

“I was introduced to it when it was launched for the mayoral election, and I used it as a free voter guide. Not only did I use it personally, but I’ve been able to educate others and get people informed,” said Adrian Segura, deputy chief for community engagement at Chicago Public Schools. “People are surprised by how many candidates they’re actually voting for. You really get into the weeds with the judges and county representatives.”

Segura repeatedly heard Chicagoans say they had no idea so many people were running, especially in uncontested races. This sparked civic conversations and even interest in the process of running for office.

As BallotReady collects more and more information about candidates, founders hope more candidates will prioritize a web presence and make their positions on issues widely known.

“BallotReady took a really complicated problem—educating voters about down-ballot candidates—and presented a simple, powerful solution in its free, online platform,” said Robert Gertner, the Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance at Chicago Booth and the John Edwardson Faculty Director of the Rustandy Center. “Their innovative venture helped bridge the education gap while also tackling a larger social issue. That kind of social impact is exactly why we launched the SNVC 10 years ago.”

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Rustandy Center website.