Sebastian Ellefson was studying public policy at Loyola in 2015 when he met his friend Alex Niemczewski, a graduate of University of Chicago, for coffee to talk over a new project. Little did they know, three years later, their project — a Chicago voting guide — would grow to encompass elections in all 50 states and attract millions of users.
BallotReady is a website where people can learn about who and what they’ll be voting for in an election. The site includes information ranging from a senator’s stance on a certain issue to the meanings of different ballot measures.
Niemczewski, BallotReady’s CEO and co-founder, said the idea originated after she made a website for herself to make filling out her ballot easier. She said she soon found she wasn’t the only person having difficulty finding election information.
“Pretty soon afterwards I realized … like everybody [Ellefson and I] talked to was like ‘oh yeah, this is a problem for me too, I leave my ballot blank or I guess when I vote,’” Niemczewski, 31, said.
Since its inception in 2015, the number of people using the site has increased dramatically. BallotReady reached a total of 1.1 million users in 2016, but Niemczewski said it passed this number early on in this year’s midterm cycle.
In 2016, BallotReady offered information for some primary elections and for 12 different states during the general election in November.
Now, with an expanded team of 20 full-time workers and 100 seasonally hired researchers — who Niemczewski said gather information such as district boundaries and candidate platforms — BallotReady has been able to provide resources to an unprecedented number of people.
“The scale of what we are doing is continuing to go up,” Ellefson, 37, said. “It’s funny because it’s a much bigger operation but we have such better infrastructure and tools to process this information that it feels about as busy as it did in 2016 to me.”
The site’s growth parallels a recent increase in national voter interest.
According to a September study by the Pew Research Center, voter enthusiasm, particularly among those supporting democratic candidates, is the highest it’s been in decades.
National events have also pushed people to become involved in voting. The March 24 “March for Our Lives” protest led thousands to register to vote, according to Reuters. The protest came a month after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida which left 17 people dead.
Ellefson, BallotReady’s principal researcher, said the team expected the highest concentration of users the day before and the day of the Nov. 6 midterm elections. However, BallotReady has also had spikes in participation when celebrities tweet about the site. Author John Green and musician Alicia Keys are some well-known people who have promoted the resource in recent months.
This is a great tool for anyone trying to figure out how to get information about candidates for #midterms or any election. Just enter your address and research who you want to vote for and make a plan for Nov 6th or #earlyvoting
😘😘#repost #reshare https://t.co/cAiU3UjWTJ pic.twitter.com/maQBXNhKfn
— Alicia Keys (@aliciakeys) October 21, 2018
Good morning. Are you ready to vote?? If not, make a plan! And find out your polling place along with the candidates and referendums on your ballot: https://t.co/5Efzml6z8z The federal elections get a lot of attention and ad dollars, but state and local races are SO IMPORTANT.
— John Green (@johngreen) November 5, 2018
While the project’s roots are local, Ellefson said the team had bigger goals for the project at its start.
“Right from the beginning we were mindful of ‘How can we make this a sustainable thing?’” Ellefson said, referring to the project’s potential.
He said the team took a class at University of Chicago to learn about how to develop a startup company and participated in a competition, called the Social New Venture Challenge, where they won seed money to help fund the project.
The team received grants from The National Science Foundation and The Knight Foundation, along with a small amount of money from the Chicago Institute of Public Politics, according to Niemczewski.
She said the Institute has supported BallotReady in a number of ways — former senior advisor for President Barack Obama, David Axelrod, is the director of the Institute and on BallotReady’s board of directors. She added the team worked out of a temporary office at the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
While starting the project was a leap of faith, Ellefson said it’s been a rewarding process.
“We didn’t know that it was going to work or not, it was a lot of fun and we had a little bit of seed money to try, but it’s just been really satisfying to know that there can be a model that allows us to make this great resource for people that is free,” Ellefson said.
Jamie McDowell, a 20-year-old studying psychology and sociology at Loyola, said she’s seen BallotReady mentioned on school flyers, but she doesn’t know much about the platform.
McDowell said she received helpful election information through Loyola’s Achieving College Excellence program, which provides support to students who are first-generation college students or who have a high financial need or disability.
Loyola Votes, a university initiative promoting student voting, hosted a “Ballot Party” Oct. 24 where students were encouraged to use BallotReady to prepare for the election.
— Loyola Chicago (@LoyolaChicago) October 24, 2018
Patricia Hatzopoulos, a junior studying political science and criminal justice at Loyola, said she used BallotReady when deciding how to vote. She said she liked how BallotReady provided the information specific to her ballot all in one place and she would consider using BallotReady again in the future.
“It was probably the most helpful thing when getting ready for the election,” the 20-year-old said.