I've been writing about politics for a long time, and I like to think I'm an informed voter. But it took a 28-year-old social entrepreneur in Chicago to point me toward my candidate for Registry of Deeds.
Like most down-ballot offices, the Suffolk County Register is selected every six years more by whimsy, name recognition, or a blind stab in the dark than as a thoughtful consideration of the issues. In the September primary, with a pitiful turnout of just 9 percent and a crowded ballot, it's no surprise that the one person voters actually might have heard of before won the Democratic nomination. In some states, ballots are overloaded with dozens of unfamiliar candidates for county commissioners, water board members, even judges, leaving voters confused, annoyed, or indifferent.
Enter BallotReady, a civic literacy startup launched nationally this month by three friends from the University of Chicago. Aviva Rosman, who grew up in Newton, said the website is live in all 50 states but so far offers complete ballot information in nine states, including Massachusetts. Voters can enter their address and get unbiased information in advance about candidates, from the presidency on down to Governor's Councilor, including endorsements, issue positions, and links to other sources. The startup has attracted attention and funding from the Knight Foundation and private investors; Democratic strategist David Axelrod and Republican Mike Murphy sit on its scrupulously nonpartisan board.
"I grew up in a household that told me politics makes a difference," Rosman said. When she was in seventh grade, her father took her out of school to campaign for Al Gore in New Hampshire. In 2004, she joined Operation Bubbe, inspired by the comedian Sarah Silverman, to turn out Jewish grandmothers in Florida to vote. "I got two incompletes from Newton North" she said. And she's proud of it.
Rosman's "aha moment" came in 2014, when, after teaching in the Chicago public schools for a few years, she decided to run for a local school council seat. Her college friend Alex Niemczewski, also politically savvy, didn't even know there was an election on. They started canvassing their associates to find out how much they knew about their ballots — or not. "Even our political science professors admitted they guessed," she said.
The two joined up with a third friend who knew something about coding, and they started assembling a voter guide for the 2015 Chicago mayoral preliminary. They want to help people "vote with confidence all the way down the ballot" and they want to boost turnout, especially among young voters. "One statistic that really shocked us was that the median age of voters in mayor elections is 60," said Rosman.
BallotReady uses a novel method to research candidates' information known as structured crowd-sourcing. The group uses a site like Amazon's Mechanical Turk to post tiny tasks, such as finding out where a candidate graduated from college, offering micro-payments of pennies per response. The team supplements the crowd-sourced information with fact-checkers and copy editors. This has driven down operating costs and let the startup expand quickly to other states.
A few days ago I plugged in my address to BallotReady's website, and, what ho! It turns out there are three independent candidates running against the old pol who nabbed the Democratic nomination for Register of Deeds. BallotReady gave me a chance to read up on them, see their endorsements, and learn what they would do with the office other than collect the $124,000 salary. And I found someone to vote for — someone, in fact, who believes the office should be appointed, not elected, and who will work to eliminate it.
Poor voter education is a perennial lament. Like New England weather, everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.