Event co-sponsored by Harris, Booth focuses on Internet startup co-founded by Harris alumna.

Could technology better connect the plugged-in but tuned-out Millennial generation to politics? A joint forum co-sponsored by Harris Public Policy and Chicago Booth on Nov. 30 explored this and related questions. Eric Schnurer, a writer, consultant and Harris adjunct engaged in a Q-and-A with Aviva Rosman, AB ’10, MPP ’16, COO of the BallotReady, a one-stop website where voters can research candidates and referendum up for election.

What follows is an edited transcript of Rosman’s and Schnurer’s conversation.

Schnurer: How did you decide how to organize the BallotReady website?

Rosman: In talking to voters, we found that everyone made decisions in different ways. Some people cared about endorsements, some people cared about experience. There wasn’t a unifying factor. We decided we needed to design a voter guide that aggregates as much information as possible in one place.

Schnurer: There’s a massive amount of information you have up there. Where is this all coming from? And how did the site do?

Rosman: We ended up covering 15,000 candidates in these 12 states. The information comes from structured crowdsourcing that allows you to post very small tasks that you pay people a tiny amount to do. Overall we had 9 million page views, average time on the site was 5 minutes, and the average person viewed an average of seven races. The majority of people were from 25-34, which made us happy because there’s a narrative that Millennials don’t care about elections. If you make it easier for them, Millennials will actually want to vote.

Schnurer: What are you looking at for 2017 and 2018?

Rosman: Our focus is on how do we grow because our goal is to be in all 50 states by 2018. This year is really an opportunity for us to figure out how do we make this work, all the way down the ballot for every single election. 

Schnurer: Aside from participation rate, are there other things you found in your research that differ in terms of how people look at the election?

Rosman: The biggest thing we found is that young people have much more difficulty understanding local issues. Once you buy a home, you’re much more likely to start voting in local elections, which make sense because you have a stake in this community. It requires a higher level of context for a college student who might just have moved to the area. How we do provide that context?

Schnurer: You’re also thinking about your business as a business. We’re going to get information to voters sounds like a nice civic thing. How do you monetize this?

Rosman: It’s not the users. The site will always be free. It’s the campaign market, which is huge, projected to spend $10 billion this year. One thing we’re interested in is, can we aggregate data in a way that politicians find useful? How can we make better use of data not only for politicians but also companies? Our pitch to voters is, you’re using our site for free, but you’re also communicating your priorities to campaigns.

So far, my generation has a different relationship with providing information. We go onto Facebook, it’s free, we know we’re giving information to advertisers, data companies, and it’s a tradeoff. So I think aggregated information is one idea [for monetizing]. The other is having ads on the sites. Which is another form of information.

Schnurer: People were out protesting the day after the election. My guess is one-third to one-half of the people protesting didn't come out to vote. This gets directly at what your business is, it’s making people informed to go out and vote.

Rosman: How can we solve this Millennial turnout crisis? One statistic we talk about is median age voters in local elections. It’s 60. Turnout wasn’t great when it comes to presidential but it’s so much better than for mayor. Part of that is lack of understanding, lack of context. It’s something like zoning. That could impact your rent, or the schools in your area. That’s something we’re trying to figure out, how to make clear to people that their vote matters.

Audience Member: All of this is predicated, is it not, on the predominance of issues as the drivers of all of this. How does it cope with or address other phenomena of identity politics, number 1, or temperament, questions of empathy, all of these touchy-feely kinds of things?

Rosman: I don’t want to discount the idea that people vote based on things that aren’t based on policy. We shouldn’t write that off, that they’re not making a good choice. So the question for us, and this is further down the line, how do we give people a better sense of character on the site, beyond the dry, “I’m going to do this.” Because people’s background can’t quite account for how are they going to perform in office. One thing we’re kicking around for the future is allowing people to comment. The problem with comments is you need to find a way to monitor them and make sure they’re useful.

Audience Member: What are you ultimately trying to solve here?

Rosman: Even among the 50 percent who vote, 30 percent fail to complete their ballots. That’s the low-hanging fruit: people who already care about voting. That’s our first value-add, is not encouraging people to vote but, you should make an informed decision in the voting booth. But the second part is, we’re giving you this information, this should encourage you to actually act on it. That’s definitely something we’re thinking about for the future, especially as we move into 2017, where we’re going to local elections where the turnout is abysmal.