Student-Led Startup Equips Voters with Details on Candidates

Aviva Rosman, a graduate student at Chicago Harris, was elected to a local school council in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood last year. Having taught at a charter school for four years, she was knowledgeable and passionate about education-related issues.

But while campaigning, Rosman noticed that many people were unaware of the local council election, let alone the candidates. 
 
“Often voters have the least information about candidates for local offices because not so much information is available, and it is difficult to figure out,” says Rosman, who noted that local elected officials have substantial powers at the neighborhood level, such as approving school budgets and hiring or firing principals.

That experience inspired Rosman to join her friend Alex Niemczewski, AB’09, in creating BallotReady, a free online and mobile voter guide. The project, which started last year, provides tailored, easy-to-digest information on candidates and referendums listed on local ballots. ­

“Each time I voted on Election Day, I always felt unprepared for candidates listed on the ballot, without knowing anything about the prospective judges or what a metropolitan water reclamation district commissioner does,” says Niemczewski, the CEO of BallotReady. “I wanted to create the sort of tool that can not only help voters like me, but also strengthen our democracy.”

In late May, BallotReady won first place and a $30,000 prize in the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The program helps launch startups with a social impact mission and a plan for financial sustainability.

“BallotReady has taken full advantage of the opportunities to hone their business plan and pitch,” says Christina Hachikian, executive director of the Social Enterprise Initiative. “They started with a great idea and turned it into a platform with the potential to make a difference.”

From its inception, BallotReady has taken part in a variety of UChicago programs, starting last fall with the Polsky Center’s Entrepreneurship Essentials and I-Corps programs, which helped them validate their idea and prepare them for the Social New Venture Challenge. They also joined the Chicago Innovation Exchange as members to get exposure to additional campus and community resources.

Another early partner, UChicago’s Institute of Politics, provided the seed funding to allow Rosman and her team to set up their initial website. The IOP also supplies BallotReady with resources such as interns, contacts and access to office space.  

David Axelrod, the institute’s director, serves on BallotReady's board of advisors, and has assisted the team with their research by connecting them with key Republican and Democratic contacts in both electoral politics and government.

“No other services offer the kind of in-depth content that BallotReady does on candidates and referendum in a voter's local election,” says Dillan Siegler, director of Partnerships & Engagement at the institute. “We know they are going to go far and can’t wait to support them along the way.”

Rosman, who majored in public policy during her undergraduate studies at UChicago, said she started working on political campaigns when she was growing up in Boston.

“During presidential primaries, my father would always drive me to New Hampshire, where we met all presidential candidates and participated in different events,” Rosman recalls. “When I was in high school, my father cashed his frequent flyer miles, and we flew to Florida to canvass for our candidate.”  

Rosman said her father impressed on her the belief that “politics and elections have the power to make change.” 

Her interest in election politics prompted her to pursue public policy studies at UChicago, where she has learned how “to think critically and apply rigorous quantitative research to policymaking.”  

When she and Niemczewski developed BallotReady, Rosman sought advice from faculty members at Chicago Harris. The project also attracted a group of like-minded UChicago alumni—Niemczewski, Sebastian Ellefson, AB’03; Charlotte Krontiris, AB’09; and Courtney Prokopas, AB‘06.

As part of the site’s development, Rosman and her team talked with voters and delved into the intricacies of local elections to understand the specific needs of voters. BallotReady will rely heavily on volunteers—political science majors at universities across the United States and high school students in Chicago. Before each election, volunteers will aggregate information from websites, newspapers, political endorsements and boards of elections about every candidate on the ballot—both local and national. BallotReady is also working on creating algorithmic and machine learning tools to enable them to automate the content collection process in the future.

In addition, BallotReady is partnering with nonprofit organizations such as the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, which collects bar association endorsements for judicial candidates.

In April, BallotReady piloted its service during the Chicago mayoral runoff election, and advertised on Google and Facebook. More than 400 voters used the site and provided input.

Currently, BallotReady is gearing up for state elections in Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia this November. During the 2016 presidential election, voters will be able to access information on BallotReady for local and national candidates in Illinois and five swing states—Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia—where local elections could be overshadowed by the presidential race. For voters in other states, BallotReady will have data on candidates at the presidential and congressional levels.

“All of these positions matter, and voters should have easy access to information that helps them figure out who the best person is for the job,” says Rosman.

—Wen Huang (originally published by UChicago News)