Initially, BallotReady founder Alex Niemczewski just wanted a cheat sheet for her own use.
“It was right before the midterms in 2014,” Niemczewski says, “and I knew my ballot was going to be really long. I wanted a place where I could keep track of all the candidates and their stances on issues and their experience.”
Niemczewski, a human-centered design consultant, couldn’t find a resource like it online. So she made one for herself, saved it to her phone, and brought it with her on election day. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be another system out there that people were using to help guide them in the vote. She started asking around—and discovered that literally everyone she spoke with was guessing on their ballots, or leaving some of them blank.
“This included political science professors and political reporters—it gave me a sense that there was a real need for this information,” Niemczewski says.
It’s a hypothesis that’s been proven true repeatedly as Niemczewski and her co-founder have built BallotReady into a tool millions of Americans are now using to inform themselves about upcoming elections. Along the way, they’ve spoken to hundreds of people about how and why they vote, and have educated millions on candidates running for offices from the local to the federal level. At the same time they’ve gotten their own education from voters—on the kinds of information they’re looking for when it comes to candidates, what they’re comfortable sharing about their own voting records, and the things that prompt voters to—yes—lie about their knowledge and voting habits.
dscout sat down with Niemczewski to go in-depth on the research BallotReady has conducted to help voters feel more engaged and informed.
dscout: You’ve said part of the impetus for creating BallotReady is that people often think voting is simpler than it actually is. What do you mean by that?
Alex: When people imagine voting, they think there's going to be a candidate they love in every race. Actually, it’s often the case where you have to choose between multiple candidates and pick the one you dislike the least. And once candidates are elected, they often have to make compromises with the other side when it comes to policy proposals. It’s not as black and white as people think, and I think for a lot of people that’s surprising and disappointing in a way that makes them not want to bother getting involved.
I know the first election you covered was at the local level in Chicago and started right off the bat with some in-depth qualitative research.
We did. In 2015 we interviewed over 150 voters across Chicago, asking them to look at paper voter guides. This was during Chicago’s mayoral election, but it wasn’t for the mayoral candidates—actually we asked them to look at candidates for Alderman. We asked them to highlight in green the things that they liked about a candidate and in red what they said they hated.
Were they real voter guides, or did you construct them for the research purposes?
They were real. It was so important that they were real because it’s actually pretty hard to make up what a candidate would say. Often much of it can be boring—but there’s often also some that’s kind of surprising. So for that reason it was important that we used real data.
We had one very interesting conversation with a group of 18-year-old students at Kennedy King College, on the south side of the city. They were reading through the guides—they seemed a bit bored, but they were reading. Then they got to this point where one of the two candidates in their ward introduced a policy proposal to instill a 9:00 pm curfew in their ward. And they said: “Hell, no. This sounds terrible.” They got out their red markers and circled it, and the consensus became “We're going to go vote because we don't want her to win.”
We needed to make it really easy for people to get to the information that they cared about most, while keeping the site nonpartisan so that they felt like they could trust where it’s coming from.
Alex Niemczewski, CEO, BallotReady
That was very meaningful to us because on the one hand, it showed us that sometimes people aren’t just voting for the best candidate, sometimes they’re voting against another candidate, and sometimes they’re voting really because of specific issues. That was reinforced when we spoke with a group of teachers who cared deeply about candidates’ stances on charter schools, or a group of people from the business community who really cared about people’s leadership skills. But the bigger thing we learned, beyond that we needed to aggregate a lot of information, was that we needed to make it really easy for people to get to the information that they cared about most, while keeping the site nonpartisan so that they felt like they could trust where it's coming from.
And where does the information on the site come from? Do you get it from candidates directly?
Yep. We email candidates and show them the profile that we’ve put together on them, as well as their opponents’ profile, and ask them to let us know anything they’d like to add. It’s all taken from public record. The best is when candidates say, “Oh, I noticed my opponent took a stand on this issue. I want to make my stance known as well.” Now, candidates realize voters are going to see us, so they're eager to give us more information and just be more transparent.
Have you done any in context research at voting or polling locations?
We’ve done quite a bit in the field and at polling locations—talking to people before or after they vote. We’ve also had more casual interactions with voters, like when we've passed out flyers at polling places with information about the elections. When we passed out flyers in 2016, we asked people if they knew there were going to be more than two candidates on their ballot, or some version of that. A lot of people would forget that their ballot was going to have judges on it, or they wouldn’t realize there would be more than two candidates to choose from. So they were very happy to take the information we were distributing. The big thing we’ve learned in general, in all the different kinds of research that we’ve done is that people are very eager and excited for the opportunity to feel more informed. They like feeling like they could make a difference with their vote.
People are very eager and excited for the opportunity to feel more informed. They like feeling like they could make a difference with their vote.
Voting is obviously a very personal thing for people, and that can raise its own set of challenges when it comes to research. Is that something you’ve come across?
Absolutely—we did one study actually where we had to scrap the first question, because basically everyone lied. People said that they always vote, they never miss an election, that they always know about all of the candidates. And clearly that can’t be true—sometimes it was very obviously not true because they named the wrong candidates.
Wow. How do you work around that?
I think you have to understand that it’s hard for people to admit that they're not an expert, and people are afraid to admit what they don't know. So, there are barriers to finding more useful information. We know people don't always like talking about who they're voting for. And what we saw in a lot of conversations, is that people are scared of seeming stupid. They're scared of getting into a political debate where they will lose. There’s a kind of fear around it.
Part of being good at interviewing someone is understanding how you make them feel is going to affect their response, and that may be especially true for something as personal as voting. If you start off by asking someone, “How do you inform yourself about the issues?” People will say, “I look at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, this site, that site.” They want to impress you and give you answers that are the ideal version of themselves. But to get to the real data, you need to start off making people feel more comfortable, so that they’ll tell you the reality of the situation.
And beyond helping people become more informed, part of the idea of BallotReady is that it can actually help you with the process of voting—you can use it while you’re filling out a ballot or as a guide to fill out your own specific local ballot ahead of time. Is the process of voting something you’ve looked at in your research, what people’s frustrations and thoughts are on actually voting on election day?
Definitely. We actually looked closely at a study that Google’s Civic Innovation team had done, on what they called “Interested Bystanders.” One of the things they learned was that, in terms of civic engagement, voting is actually a very lonely activity. You do it by yourself, there's all this pressure to know a lot. But it's confusing, so it can feel overwhelming. And there's social pressure to not talk about it. That was really useful to us.
A big part of what we do is make it super easy to vote your whole ballot. But one of the other things that we wanted to do was make the process less lonely, and also enable people to start building their narrative on local politics.
What we’ve learned from our many conversations with voters is that a lot of people think “Oh, my local elected officials fix potholes.” That's a pretty thin narrative of what a local elected official does, and when they go to BallotReady they can see that two candidates running for alderman have these opposing stances on what we should do about guns in the city of Chicago. Seeing how candidates stand on a specific issue that they can grab onto helps voters build an understanding and a narrative of “Oh, these are two potential solutions to this issue.” It gives them a way to talk about that issue with other people, and to be more engaged on the local level and in local politics.
Seeing how candidates stand on a specific issue that they can grab onto helps voters build an understanding and a narrative of “Oh, these are two potential solutions to this issue.” It gives them a way to talk about that issue with other people, and to be more engaged on the local level and in local politics.
Have you seen that that’s had any tangible results, that people are more engaged or at least thinking about voting a bit differently now?
We have actually seen that a lot. People often tell us that they’re filling out their ballots together, with friends—we heard that a lot from people, that they were hosting get-togethers where people would research their ballot. And then this year we actually started helping people host ballot parties, because so many people told us they were doing it already.
Ballot parties. They’re like the new Tupperware party.
What do you think is the driving force behind that? Does it go beyond the social aspect?
I think it’s more fun filling out a ballot together than it is alone, but beyond that I think it creates a space for people to continue that engagement, whether it's a conversation, or whether it's getting more involved in other ways.
Have you seen any increase in voting across the ballot at the local level?
It's hard to say, because ballots are different lengths, so it’s hard to measure what is a complete ballot. But we have seen that of the people who saved candidates on our site, 72% saved down to the local level. Which is very nice to hear, that people are actually using the site to refer down to the local level, and not just looking at the top candidates and their stance. Sometimes the ballots are very long, so they're getting through the way we designed it.
Do you have stats on how many people used BallotReady and how many are projected to use it in the mid-terms this year?
We had 13,000 people use it in 2015, for the local elections in Chicago and Kentucky. In 2016, we had 1.1 million, and now we've already had more people come to the site in the last month than we had in all of 2016. Part of that is that in 2016 we were in 12 states and this year we are covering all 50 states and DC.
Are there any projected numbers for 2018?
It's so hard to predict ... in 2016, two-thirds of our users for the whole year came in the 24 hours leading up to election day, which was crazy.
The other week Alicia Keys tweeted about us. We had no clue, but our traffic spiked insanely. It's hard to know.
It sounds like we should ask you again on November 7th.
Yes—I’ll definitely know then.
To learn more about upcoming elections, visit BallotReady or check your voter registration status.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.