Loyola MUAPP Grad Plans to Change the Way America Votes
In 2014, less than 40% of the eligible population cast a vote in the general election. Voter turnout is even lower during odd-year elections, when many citizens don’t know which positions are open or who is running for them. Enter BallotReady, an award-winning, free, non-partisan voter guide created by 2015 MUAPP graduate Sebastian Ellefson and his team. BallotReady gives every citizen access to the information they need to make conscious, educated decisions in the voting booth.
“Elected officials have all sorts of interests,” Sebastian says, “and to really create political change it starts in the voting booth.”
Alex Niemczewski, the founder of the initiative, became frustrated by the seemingly straight forward task of looking up candidates’ policies.
“She was like, ‘this should be simpler’, so she contacted some of her friends who she knew had political involvement to see if they had any ideas.”
Sebastian has always been interested in the political process, which is partly why he was motivated to go to Loyola for his MPP after working as a lawyer in Chicago for several years. He saw BallotReady as an opportunity to take his policy education and create a program that he says will “level the info barriers that keep people from voting”.
Sebastian and Alex weren’t the only ones that saw the potential of this kind of project. They teamed up with Aviva Rosman, a student at Harris School of Public Policy, to enter the Booth Social New Venture Challenge at University of Chicago. Among steep competition from other socially-minded ventures, the team managed to impress the judges and win a $30,000 grant to expand the project.
“This was a problem,” Sebastian says, “the difficulty of voting in local elections, that [the judges] have directly experienced.”
The website was active in Kentucky and Virginia for this year’s elections. Residents of these states could enter their address on the website and see all the candidates on their ballot along with their resumes, party affiliation, and stance on key issues. By creating a profile, users could make a selections and then bring up their choices later in the voting booth. These states have served as a sort of test run, with massive expansion on the horizon.
Sebastian knows that there are obvious challenges to this ambitious goal. As Director of Content, he has to figure out how to generate all of the information on the site. His creative solution has been to phrase this information gathering not as an onerous task but as an opportunity for college students to engage directly in the electoral process. He has held a series of Civic Hackathons at universities around the country in which he gathers an army of student volunteers to sift through the information on candidate websites and parse it down to what is on the site. He is currently planning on coming to Loyola in the winter to prepare for the March primary.
What began as a few conversations about a social injustice has led to an enormous undertaking with a bright future. Sebastian has even quit his day job in the Office of the Cook County Chief Judge to work as the full-time Director of Content for BallotReady. Be sure to check out the website as they continue to expand, coming soon to a ballot near you.