By Misha Euceph
Illinois’ primary election day today is the big test, not just for candidates, but for BallotReady, a University of Chicago-backed non-profit, that won $30,000 in a challenge in May 2015. The site’s ambitious mission is to inform voters about every single candidate on their local ballots.
The site launched earlier this year in several states, and is live for all Illinois voters today. Not only does it cover all the candidates on each voter’s ballot, but it provides information on each candidate’s experience and endorsements, and their positions on a range of issues most relevant to the office each candidate is seeking.
“We believe elected officials matter, from top to bottom,” reads the BallotReady website. The company aspires to create “a future in which candidates for local office know that their activities and positions will be held to a high standard.”
Alex Niemczewski, BallotReady’s CEO, explains that she and her two co-founders created the website originally to cover the mayoral run-off in Chicago between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and opponent, Chuy Garcia, in April 2015.
Soon Niemczewski realized, “Even political reporters for certain newspapers didn’t know who to vote for in local elections.” She told the Huffington Post, “We talked to political science professors who said they voted on names or parties.”
Niemczewski’s team taps into a growing problem, decline of voter turnout in local elections, especially in off years. In 2011, when only a few gubernatorial races and congressional special elections took place, according to a University of Wisconsin study, less than 21 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot. Among millennials (voters aged approximately 18-34), among the obstacles they say keep them from voting in local elections, not enough information about candidates is the most often mentioned, at 75 percent, according to a Knight Foundation study.
BallotReady tackles this problem with a web-based ballot that anyone can access by entering her address. For the contentious Cook County state’s Attorney’s race, for example, the website provides an overview of all three Democratic candidates, Donna More, Kim Foxx, and incumbent Anita Alvarez. Once the voter arrives on this page, she can choose to compare the candidates side by side or read in depth about each candidate, including the candidate’s endorsements, memberships, positions on certain issues, and news articles about the candidate.
BallotReady, though different in style and growing quickly, is not the only political startup that hopes to educate voters about local candidates before they enter the voting booth. CrowdPAC, a Silicon Valley-based company, provides a rating system for candidates and is led by Steve Hilton, former Senior Advisor to David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
BallotReady boasts a little over 2,000 Facebook likes and its base is recent graduates and current students at the University of Chicago. In a competitive field of political startups and an ever-confusing election cycle, it is unclear how effective BallotReady has been in accomplishing its mission.
“I think it’s so fantastic to be able to just do my research the morning of and not get overwhelmed,” says Samantha Neal, a rising senior and political science major at the University of Chicago. “I know I care more about this stuff because of my major. And I probably only know about BallotReady because I go to U of C.”