7 Questions with BallotReady
7 Questions with Alex Niemczewski, CEO of BallotReady
Alex Niemczewski is the CEO of BallotReady, an online voter guide for local, state, and national elections. In 2015, BallotReady started with a test run in Chicago’s 2015 mayoral runoff election on a budget of only $180. This year, BallotReady will be available in all fifty states.
Alex is an alumnus of The University of Chicago with a background in workforce development. Prior to BallotReady, she founded a research consulting firm and taught coding at the Booth School of Business and The Starter League.
What inspired you to create BallotReady?
I wanted to prepare myself for the 2014 midterms, so I made a website just for myself. I knew who I was going to vote for at the top of the ballot, but not for offices like the water reclamation commissioner or judges. I wanted a website to keep track of all of my research on the candidates, so I made a site just for myself. After that, I started talking to people about it and literally everyone I met said, “Oh yeah, sometimes when I go to vote I guess or I leave blanks.” We grew from there.
What strategies were instrumental to growing BallotReady into the innovative company that it is today?
From the beginning, we put voters first. One of the first things we did was voter behavior research. We pulled together findings from previous studies and we did our own studies to see what voters do to prepare themselves to be informed about the whole ballot. Even now, we track every metric on the site and we talk to voters in person all the time. The main thing that we are thinking about is, “How can we make this most useful for voters?”
As the founder of a nonpartisan tool, how do you ensure that the information you provide your users is unbiased?
We think about that a lot. We do a couple things. When we make our nonpartisan voter guide, every bit of information that we have on the site is linked to a source. We aggregate instead of editorializing, and we list the candidates in random order because we know that when people go to vote, they often vote for the first name listed just because they don’t know who to vote for. We also have the candidates’ endorsements, their previous experience, and their stances on issues. We get candidate stances from things that they have said themselves whether it’s in a debate covered in a news article or information that the candidate has posted on their website or social media. We always use their words.
How do you think BallotReady will affect voting in the upcoming midterm elections?
We expect to increase turnout. We expect to see an increase in completed ballots. It’s really easy for people who have looked at our guide before going to the polls to be informed voters. Even if they are just pulling our site up on their phone while they in the voting booth, it’s super easy for them to be informed to vote on the whole ballot.
Why did you get involved in politics? What advice do you have for young voters interested in getting more involved in politics?
Before I started BallotReady, I worked at a nonprofit that helped low income people find living-wage, union jobs. We often saw legislation that was passed that either affected my clients’ unemployment benefits or affected the job market as a whole. There was this whole avenue of making society better that I was not tapped into and my clients were not tapped into. I wanted to make sure that when I went to vote, I casted an informed vote for every office on my ballot. I felt like that was a problem I could solve for myself and now it is a problem that BallotReady can solve for every voter.
For young voters interested in getting involved in politics, it is important to know that there are so many problems out there. First, Get an internship or some volunteer experience working with a group that you really admire. When we started BallotReady, a couple people told me something like, “that exists.” The thing is, it existed in a way that was much worse than what we do now. There is a lot of room for more people to be tackling big problems.
What advice do you have for young women looking to create their own startups?
One of the things that I did very early on that I think was the best thing was connecting with my co founders. I had gone to college with one of my co founders. We were friends and now we are business partners. My advice is: find a friend. Start talking about your idea with them. Go from there. I think sometimes people get in a mode where they think they have to do it all themselves. I feel like BallotReady has been able to go so much further given the team and the connection we have.
What goals do you have for BallotReady in the future?
We want every voter to be informed by using BallotReady. We want every voting aged person to vote and vote informed.
Bonus question: What is one local election that has caught your eye while working on BallotReady?
One of the first races we covered, was in Chicago. One of the candidates left a voicemail for his opponent at 3:00am and his opponent sent it out. It was in all the newspapers. He was very clearly drunk, aggressive, and mean. It was so embarrassing. I listened to the voicemail and it was so terrible, yet entertaining. It was interesting for us because the only news articles about this candidate were about that incident. That is when we decided to show news articles about candidates.