BOULDER — The founders of BallotReady came to Boulder in February with the goal of their online voter guide providing comprehensive information on candidates and issues in seven states for this fall’s general election. By the time they graduated from the MergeLane startup accelerator 12 weeks later, they instead were ready to ramp up to 25 states.
BallotReady chief executive Alex Niemczewski said her Chicago-based startup’s time spent in Boulder earlier this year proved invaluable as it related to team development, marketing, scaling and fundraising strategies.
“I could talk about how wonderful they are for hours,” Niemczewski said of MergeLane in a recent phone interview.
Colorado’s importance to BallotReady didn’t end in April. The state is one of just four in which the website is covering primary elections this year as well, testing out strategies ahead of the big rollout this fall.
With Colorado primary ballots due June 28, Colorado voters at no cost can enter their address and party affiliation at ballotready.org and see a list of every candidate running in the primary for every race at the national, state and local levels — all specific to each voter’s individual ballot. From there, voters can find aggregated information on each candidate, ranging from previous experience to endorsements to news to stances on issues. For the general election in the fall, information on ballot measures will be included as well.
BallotReady’s value, Niemczewski said, is particularly in the local races, where candidates for races such as, say, university regents aren’t always as well-known and voters often resort to guessing or leaving portions of their ballot blank.
“We’re pretty inundated with information about the presidential candidates,” she said. “Most people are decided when they show up to vote for president, but they’re not prepared for the rest of the ballot.”
Founded by Niemczewski, Aviva Rosman and Sebastian Ellefson in late 2014, BallotReady partners with the University of Chicago’s nonpartisan Institute of Politics and boasts among its board of advisors David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama, and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
BallotReady covered Chicago’s mayoral runoff election in the spring of 2015, spending about $180 and attracting 400 users. The site already has covered primaries in Illinois, Kentucky and Maryland this year. For the Illinois primary in March, BallotReady attracted 64,000 users, or about 2 percent of overall voter turnout. For the Kentucky primary last month, though, BallotReady officials said usage ballooned to 12 percent of registered voters in the state who accessed the site to view candidate information.
BallotReady still is finalizing which 25 states it will cover this fall, Niemczewski said, with an eye on swing states where races figure to be more hotly contested. General election info will begin going live on the site in September or October.
While other sites such as Ballotpedia and Change Politics offer some form of the same services, Niemczewski said BallotReady aims to set itself apart by covering every candidate on every person’s ballot and providing more comprehensive information. BallotReady users also can set preferences on the issues that matter most to them and compare candidates on those specific topics. The site aims to prevent bias by aggregating information on the web as opposed to providing summaries or recommendations. The site also lists candidates for each race in random order.
Niemczewski said the eventual goal is to “cover every race, every election in every democracy at some point.” Since BallotReady plans to always keep the site free for voters, the company is pre-revenue at this point. Niemczewski said the priority this year is making the site useful for voters, with a deeper dive into making money next year. She said the major avenue for revenue is tapping into the billions of dollars spent on campaigns every year. That could mean selling data on what voters care about in a given district to candidates, elected officials or advocacy groups, or other things such as selling ads or video spots on specific candidates’ profile pages.
MergeLane cofounder Sue Heilbronner said the team of cofounders is what attracted the accelerator to BallotReady first and foremost. But she said the user traction the site has already gained encourages her that the company will find a way to make money.
Funded so far mostly by grants from the National Science Foundation and Knight Foundation, as well as prize money from various pitch contests, Niemczewski said the company has raised about 75 percent of a planned $750,000 seed funding round.
MergeLane, through its discretionary investment fund, has committed a six-figure investment to the round.
“If (the user rate in Kentucky) is the kind of traction they’re seeing in their first month of operation,” Heilbronner said, “we have a high level of confidence that they’re filling a need that will have material business implications.”
Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein