It’s Election Day, and you walk into the voting booth to confidently make your selections: President. Governor. Mayor. Senator. Representative.
But as you work your way down the ballot, the candidates and offices look less familiar. At some point, you wonder: Who are all these people? What does a constable do? What does this referendum language really mean?
Studies show that about 30 percent of American voters leave some portion of their ballots blank. Others make picks based on familiar names or party affiliation. Or they just start guessing.
We have yet to meet a person who hasn’t guessed on a ballot. That includes political scientists, and we’ve interviewed a lot of them.
BallotReady.org co-creator Alex Niemczewski
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“We have yet to meet a person who hasn’t guessed on a ballot,” Alex Niemczewski said. “That includes political scientists, and we’ve interviewed a lot of them.”
Elections are too important for guesswork, which is why Niemczewski, 28, and Aviva Rosman, 27, created a voter-education website called BallotReady.org. It pulls together news stories and other published information about candidates and issues into a single, organized place where voters may quickly study and compare.
Kentucky was one of the first states included on the award-winning website, which has grown considerably since its creation two years ago. I talked with Niemczewski last week while she was in Lexington ahead of the state’s primary election on Tuesday.
BallotReady.org, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago, plans to have compiled information for every race on every ballot in 25 states by the November general election. By 2020, it expects to cover the entire nation.
The website is free and easy to use. You type in your street address and party affiliation to get a detailed report on the specific ballot you will see at the voting booth — every candidate, every race.
30 percentof American voters leave some portion of their ballots blank
It includes candidate bios, endorsements, links to news articles, and candidate stands on issues specific to each race. The site’s design allows for easy candidate comparisons.
The website strives to be unbiased, Niemczewski said, and it links to the published sources of its information. Users may study the website in advance or call it up on their smartphones while they’re in the voting booth.
“We want to make it easier for everybody to be an informed voter,” she said.
The project began because of Niemczewski’s own voting experience.
“I was really prepared to vote for president,” the Chicago Web developer said. “But when I got there, there were all these names on the ballot I had never heard of. I didn’t know how to make a decision.”
Rosman had similar experiences, so they did extensive research on the issue and began creating BallotReady.org with help from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Other funding has come from the National Science Foundation, and the John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation.
In March, the website won the $10,000 first prize in the National Invitational Public Policy Challenge sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and Governing magazine.
Information for the website is gathered by more than 100 college students in the various states, most of whom are paid for their work. Small, local races are always the hardest to compile information about, Niemczewski said, and that takes a lot of time.
“It’s structured crowd-sourcing,” she said, and the structure is designed to keep the information unbiased. Sebastian Ellefson, 32, the site’s director of content, oversees the process.
Niemczewski said she hopes BallotReady.org will become especially useful to young voters, who tend to vote less often and take less time to research candidates and issues than older voters do.
Although it was started as a nonprofit, BallotReady.org is now set up as a for-profit organization to pursue future revenue sources. Those could include selling candidates basic information about what issues users click on, and placing clearly labeled campaign videos on candidates’ profile pages.
Niemczewski said it could become a good business model.
“Campaigns are spending a lot of money,” Niemczewski said. “The market for digital ad space is going to be $3 billion by 2020.”