By Susie Allen, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
“ I tried to do the research myself, and it was just so time consuming, and it was so hard to find the information.”
—Alex Niemczewski, AB’09
Editor's note: This story is adapted from the Summer 2016 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.
“You could spend all of your time voting in the U.S.,” says John Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and the College.
He’s joking—kind of. Between national, state, municipal, and special district elections, there are a staggering number of elected officials in the United States (about half a million, according to one estimate). And the large number of decisions voters have to make in any given cycle has important effects on voter participation. Not only is American voter turnout extraordinarily low, but many voters “roll off”—that is, leave blanks on their ballot—or guess.
In 2012, Alex Niemczewski, AB’09, was one of those voters. She walked into the voting booth, confidently cast her ballot in the presidential race, and quickly got lost in a thicket of judicial retention races, school board candidates, and ballot measures. “There were offices where I didn’t know what that person did or could do. There were names I had never heard of,” she says. She later learned just how common her experience in the voting booth was. “Literally everyone has admitted to guessing,” she says. “We talked to political science professors here [and] at other universities who admit to guessing—and political reporters.”
For her next election, Niemczewski wanted to prepare but felt overwhelmed by the task. “I tried to do the research myself,” she says, “and it was just so time consuming, and it was so hard to find the information.” There was no single resource that provided meaningful information about every candidate on her ballot—so she decided to build one.
This is the origin story of BallotReady, the website Niemczewski founded in 2014 with Aviva Rosman, AB’10, MPP’16, and Sebastian Ellefson, AB’03. Sitting in a sunny nook in the Chicago Innovation Exchange, BallotReady’s current home, Niemczewski explains the project that has consumed her for the past two years: essentially, BallotReady does your civics homework for you, providing free, nonpartisan, easy-to-access information about every candidate and every issue on your particular ballot. Unlike other similar efforts, BallotReady is committed to providing meanginful information on every last candidate and ballot measure in a particular election.
BallotReady started small, launching with a test run in Chicago’s April 2015 mayoral runoff election on a budget of just $180. A month later, they won the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s John Edwardson, MBA’72, Social New Venture Challenge, and this June they received a major infusion of capital from the UChicago Innovation Fund. They’ve also gotten help from the Institute of Politics, where this summer they were entrepreneurs in residence. The team originally planned to cover seven states in the November general election, but they’ve upped that number to 25.
‘Obsessed with elections’
Niemczewski is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and appears remarkably serene for someone who is working “every waking minute” on BallotReady. Even as an undergraduate studying philosophy, she knew she wanted to found a start‑up someday.
Niemczewski didn’t have a particular interest in politics before starting BallotReady, but her cofounders Rosman and Ellefson are, she says, “obsessed with elections.” Growing up in Boston, Rosman accompanied her father to New Hampshire during presidential primary season and once flew to Florida to canvass for a candidate. She’s been a candidate herself: Rosman won election to her neighborhood’s local school council in 2014, not long before BallotReady was founded. Niemczewski and Rosman recruited Ellefson, whom they knew to be a political aficionado, that summer. Over drinks at Jimmy’s, the trio settled on the name “BallotReady.”
Users provide BallotReady with their home address, which is used to generate a digital copy of their particular ballot. They can compare candidates by selecting an issue (“energy/environment,” “foreign policy,” “immigration”—the list varies by office), quickly review candidate experience and endorsements, and “save” candidates as they go. A bar at the side of the screen shows voters their progress through the ballot, which feels “so satisfying,” Niemczewski says. On election day, users can print out a list of their candidate selections or access it on a smartphone from the mobile-friendly BallotReady website.
BallotReady’s information is assembled by an army of political science student interns at colleges and universities nationwide. During “civic hackathons,” they pull information from candidate websites, local news agencies, and endorsing organizations. Niemczewski describes the process as “structured crowdsourcing. ... They’re doing very specific tasks, like, ‘Here’s a candidate’s website, tell us where they went to college.’” Each task is repeated by multiple people so it can be verified by BallotReady staff before it goes live on the site.
By spending time on BallotReady, users can develop a stronger understanding of how their government works, Niemczewski says. “You may not know the job of water reclamation commissioner, but you could see, oh, these are three or six different ideas for how to tackle this problem. And that can help you start to piece together something of an opinion and an idea of how these things work.”
‘Local elections matter’
For all the light and heat of presidential campaigns, what’s happening at the state and local level can affect your life just as much, if not more. Officials whose names you may not know make decisions about your property taxes, the school your child attends, the bus you take to work each day, the safety of the water you drink. “In Flint, it’s the water. In Illinois, it’s mental health clinics, it’s policing, the budget,” Niemczewski says.
When talking to voters about BallotReady, she learned many voters are ashamed of their ignorance of local politics. “They know local elections matter,” she says. “They feel a sense of guilt.”
At the heart of BallotReady is a hopeful belief that people want to and will do the work of educating themselves—if you make it easy for them. Early signs are promising: the day before the March Illinois primary, BallotReady’s site went viral on Reddit and Facebook. About 64,000 people, says Niemczewski, used the site for that election.
Niemczewski’s grandest ambition is that BallotReady will someday be used for “every candidate in every race in every election in every democracy.” She also hopes it can be expanded to keep voters engaged in politics between elections.
Originally published on October 25, 2016.