If you think things are messed up right now, you’re not alone: For years, polls have shown that trust in U.S. political institutions is either at rock-bottom levels or damn near close to it. And while elections are supposed to be the way Americans can push through actual, sustainable change, a lagging voting infrastructure has continued to stand in the way—whether through accident, complacency, or deliberate voter suppression, everything from voting machines to basic things like local election boards actually having websites suffer from outdated technology.
Chicago-based startup BallotReady can’t solve all of that—it’s a mammoth problem that’s accrued over generations and can only be solved with an equally mammoth push in the other direction. But it is trying to help alleviate one of the most basic problems with U.S. elections: Knowing where to go and what Americans will be voting on.
BallotReady lets users type in their addresses to locate their polling places, find out what’s on the ballot, and read through non-partisan information on what the candidates stand for—everything from big-ticket Senate races to down-ballot races for roles like state legislators, attorneys general, and civil court judges, as well as ballot propositions. The site also tries to offer explanations of what each elected position does, as well as relevant candidate data like endorsements, experience, and stances on the issues.
The site is one of a number of technologies meant to untangle the clusterfuck that is America’s electoral process—and nothing has quite found a real solution. But hey, they’re trying.
Vote411, a popular and well-regarded voter information website run by the League of Women Voters, also allows for location-based searches of races and posts responses to relevant questions it sends candidates about their potential positions if they received a response. (It’s up and working, despite a recent cyberattack.) We Vote, which Fast Company reported was “developed by an open-source network of volunteers and is still in a rough beta stage,” allows for users to categorize candidates by their stances on issues as scored by third-party groups. Other apps, such as VoteWithMe and OutVote, encourage people to pester their contacts about not participating in elections at all.
“We let you choose the issues, we let you choose the organizations you trust, and then we let you add your friends and invite people who want to talk to you,” We Vote co-founder and CEO Dale McGrew told Fast Company. “… We’re tuned to serve people who don’t want to spend a lot of time.”
The solution offered by BallotReady, which recently expanded nationwide, is not perfect. A search using a Gizmodo staffer’s address in New York returned detailed information about most major races, though only had limited data like names and bar association evaluations on some down-ballot races like civil court judges. Another search for an address in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where there were only federal and state offices on the ballot, was more complete. (It’s far from unusual for voters to have limited awareness of down-ballot races, in which distinguishing information beyond party ID can be difficult to find.)
As Fast Company noted, the amount of data available on BallotReady can have other gaps: While the site attempts to explain ballot measures in a straightforward manner, more contentious issues that candidates want to bury—like Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally’s vote to repeal Obamacare—don’t always show up.
The Chicago Tribune reported that BallotReady only covered 12 states in 2016, though co-founder and CEO Alex Niemczewski told Gizmodo that this year the site has information on over 94,000 candidates running across the country in tomorrow’s election. Launching nationally wasn’t just a matter of scraping some websites, she said, since election boards across the country have wild variation in their levels of modernization and standardization. Sometimes, they have to get in touch with the candidates themselves to get answers.
“We source from local state, county, and municipal boards of elections, candidate websites and social media, and third-party sources like news and media,” Niemczewski wrote to Gizmodo. “We also email candidates who have contact information and we send them their profile and their opponents’ profiles. The best response we get is when candidates see that their opponent has a stance on an issue, and they want to add their stance as well.”
“We also have a button on the site that allows users of the site to submit additional information,” Niemczewski added. “Everything on the site is linked to its source, so voters know where it’s coming from.”
As Governing noted, there is wide variation in the level of cybersecurity preparedness between states—let alone the kind of basic IT functions that would help groups like BallotReady organize information on what’s being voted on. The site wrote that almost all 50 states have depleted a $4 billion budget authorized by Congress in 2002 to improve everything from voting machines and computerized voter records to election administration, and a remaining $396 million was not disbursed as of early this year.
Nearly every state has depleted funding from the $4 billion federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. Pushing down responsibility for election security to the local level, aside from placing a burden on counties, means there are huge disparities between large counties with sizable budgets and smaller jurisdictions that are lucky to get IT help on a part-time basis.
State and local officials are asking Congress for renewed help. Congress has never allocated $396 million to the states that was authorized by the 2002 law. That money would certainly be welcome now.
Approximately $380 million was made available later this year, though as NPR reported in June, much of those resources are arriving too late for the 2018 midterms. And beyond the states themselves, there’s a dizzying array of local entities responsible for managing the vote, many of which have limited resources. While some states or localities do make detailed voter guides available, that’s just not the case everywhere, to everyone’s detriment. Information asymmetry is a huge problem: Niemczewski told Crain’s Chicago Business that one thing that spurred her to start BallotReady was realizing she even knew “political reporters who admit to guessing.”
Niemczewski told Gizmodo that just figuring out the bare essentials of who is running and where is an “enormous undertaking,” requiring getting in contact with local officials who sometimes don’t have websites or reply to emails in writing.
“We have to contact county and municipal boards of elections and clerk’s offices,” Niemczewski wrote. “Thirty percent of boards of elections don’t have websites, and even the ones that do often don’t provide all the information we need. We have to make phone calls regularly, and sometimes they tell us we need to send requests via fax, sometimes they respond to emails via snail mail.”
She added that sometimes, BallotReady even had to create their own digital versions of district maps because the available maps of district boundaries arrive “in the mail, drawn on paper, or in a CD, because there’s no digital version until we make one.”
Niemczewski said BallotReady’s undertaking makes clear why many voters find it hard to access the kind of information they need to make an informed decision on election day.
“There are huge accessibility issues,” Niemczewski wrote. “We see that most voters don’t even realize there will be more on the ballot than the candidates for senator or governor, let alone a long ballot with things like judges and measures on it. Also, they don’t understand logistical things about voting, like that you even can vote early or how to vote absentee.”