The Illinois governor’s race has gotten a lot of attention, but do you know who else you’re voting for in this highly anticipated midterm election?
Do you know who is running for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District? Or what’s up for consideration on the various ballot referendums?
And what about the 70 or so judicial races?
A Chicago company is helping voters walk into their polling places feeling Ballot Ready. That’s the name of a one-stop shop for candidates’ positions, endorsements and web links – information they hope will help you make informed decisions.
Below, an edited Q&A with BallotReady.org CEO Alex Niemczewski.
How did Ballot Ready come about?
So, I wanted to prepare myself for the midterms in 2014. I knew who I was going to vote for at the top of the ballot but I knew my ballot was going to be really long. I knew there were going to be judges and all these offices that I didn’t really know what they were like comptroller and I didn’t know the candidates. So I made a website just for myself to keep track of all the candidates. And then I got my team together and basically everyone we talked to was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve guessed on my ballot or I voted and left stuff blank.” And we talked to like political science professors who admitted to leaving their ballot blank, political reporters. So basically what I learned is it wasn’t just me who didn’t know what to do.
Explain how it works for voters. I go to your website … and then?
You type in your address so we can show you what’s going to be on your ballot. You click “get started” and we show you all the races that will be on your ballot, all the offices and the candidates running for them. And for the candidates, we show their previous experience, education, stances on issues and who endorses them. And then we show you ballot measures also. And for those we show what a yes vote means and what a no vote means because often it’s really hard to understand that just from reading the text.
And we designed the tool so voters can save the candidates that they want to vote for. This site is designed to be used on mobile and in a lot of places, you can take your phone with you into the voting booth. So you can do the research right there or pull up your saved candidates list on your phone on the site. Or you can print your saved list out ahead of time and bring that with you.
Explain how you collect the data? Do you reach out to candidates? Do they reach out to you? How does that work?
So, one of the hardest parts is actually just figuring out who’s going to be on the ballot … we have to go county by county and municipality by municipality across the country. And sometimes often it’s not listed online. So we call them. We have to send faxes. Sometimes we send emails and they respond via the mail. So, that takes a lot of work just to figure out who the candidates are.
And then the candidates, once we know them, we pull their background information and stances from what they’ve said online, on their website or their social media. And then we email candidates who we have emails for and we say, “Here’s what your profile looks like, here’s what your opponent’s profiles look like. Let us know if you want to add anything.” And increasingly we have candidates say, “Oh, I noticed my opponent took a stance on this issue. I want to make my stance known as well.” And that’s really great for us because we have more information on the site, but more importantly, it’s really great for voters because then they’re actually getting more information so they can make a better decision.
In the 3rd Congressional District, Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski is running against Republican Arthur Jones, who was leader of the American Nazi Party. I read that the write-in candidate, independent Justin Hanson, reached out to you. Tell us what happened.
Yeah, actually, we had a number of women who reached out to us before that, and they were like, “This candidate is a Nazi. Can you say that on the site?” And at first we were like there’s nowhere for us to really put that information. But then what we decided was to create this new category. So what we now do is we say if a candidate is a member of a hate group, and a hate group as defined by the Anti-Defamation League – they have a whole list of hate groups and they’re continuously adding to that list – if a candidate is a member of a hate group, we list that. So what that meant is for Arthur Jones, we list that he was a former leader of the American Nazi Party and a member of a group called America First Committee which is also a hate group.
So you’re pretty nimble. You can make changes when you need to?
Yeah. The important thing for our research, we have the same process for every candidate. But with that said, you know, sometimes candidates change things. Or on every candidate page on the site, we have a button that you can click that says, “You have more information about this candidate?” and people can submit information.
I want to know if the choices that I make are safe on your site. (I don’t want to be barraged by targeted mail or email or from campaigns.) So, if I saved my stuff on your site, is it safe?
We’ll never sell data. We never give that away. Also, you don’t even have to enter your email or name to save candidates. We changed the design of the site so you can just save your list and it saves via cookies and you can print it out. And so your name and contact information isn’t connected to your saved candidates at all.
So you’re now in all 50 states. How hard was that to scale up? It’s hard enough to do Cook County!
Yeah exactly. And the rest of Illinois! You know, Illinois was a good state to start in because there are a lot of complicated things but it’s really no match. Every state feels unique. So it was really hard. But one of the things that people often don’t realize is there are more local races in off years. So, for example, last year there were actually more offices up for election than this year. So, we used to last year as a real opportunity to test and refine all of our data-collection methods.
Is your site free and nonpartisan?
As we’ve all heard, this is one of the most highly anticipated midterms in recent history. Have you seen a spike in users?
Yeah. It’s insane.
Does your site help people find their polling places?
We help people find their polling places and early voting locations. So, in Chicago, for example, you can vote today. We help you figure out where and when you can do that.
What’s next for you?
Next year there are more elections happening than there are this year because there are a lot of local elections happening. So we’re making voter guides for next year. But also, one of the things we’ve started to do and will do next year is provide information for people who want to run for office. So, we can know, given a person’s address, all the offices that they’re eligible to run for and background information on the office like: here is how to file, here’s the salary of this office so people can see if it makes sense for them. Basically, the idea is we know a lot of races are uncontested and we want to get more people to run for them.
And is that nationally or just locally that you’re starting out?