App the Vote!

CHICAGO HARRIS STUDENT Aviva Rosman was elected to a local school council in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in 2014. 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 with support from Harris’ Center for Policy Entrepreneurship, 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.”

Last 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, which hosts the challenge. “They started with a great idea and turned it into a platform with the potential to make a difference.”

BallotReady has since partnered with a diverse range of organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the Knight Foundation and Microsoft, which will display results from BallotReady on its Bing search engine. UChicago’s Institute of Politics provided early seed funding to set up an initial website. David Axelrod, the institute’s director and distinguished senior fellow at Harris, 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 referendums in a voter’s local election,” says Dillan Siegler, director of partnerships and engagement at the Institute of Politics. “We know they are going to go far, and we are excited to support them along the way.”

Rosman, who majored in public policy during her undergraduate studies at UChicago, started working on campaigns while growing up in Boston. “During presidential primaries, my father would always drive me to New Hampshire, where we met all the presidential candidates and participated in different events,” she 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 sustained interest in electoral politics prompted her to continue her education in public policy studies at Harris, where she has learned how “to think critically and apply rigorous quantitative research to policymaking.”

As part of the site’s development, Rosman and her team talked with voters and delved into the intricacies of local elections to understand voters’ specific needs. 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. BallotReady is also working on creating algorithmic and machine learning tools to enable them to automate the content collection process in the future.

An early version of BallotReady that launched in October offered information about select local and state elections in Kentucky, Virginia and Indianapolis. In February, the site released a voter guide for the Illinois primary election. Rosman and Niemczewski intend to roll out the service nationwide before the 2016 elections.

– Wen Huang