INFORMING VOTERS: Chicago’s Aviva Rosman is fighting against ignorance in the voting booth with an online guide to political races in all 50 states, in order to “make democracy work the way it’s supposed to.”

Education Pioneers photographed at Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL. June 16, 2014. Photo by Andrew Collings.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The acid test of Aviva Rosman’s non-partisan, apolitical operation of her BallotReady web site was in profiling Arthur Jones’ stances running for Congress in Illinois’ 3rd District.

Any Jew’s blood would logically boil reading and hearing the comments of Jones, a white supremacist, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier who sneaked in to snare the Republican nomination unopposed.

The local GOP organization – which disavowed Jones — did not slate a candidate on its own in the March primary to eventually run a suicide race against entrenched Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinski, second generation after father Bill Lipinski to hold the congressional seat since 1983. With some residents of the southwest suburban/Southwest Side district likely not aware of his background when he and supporters rang doorbells, Jones simply rounded up enough signatures to get on the March primary ballot.

Rosman, chief operating officer of BallotReady, is the daughter of a Reconstructionist rabbi and lived in Israel as a grade-schooler. But, true to her modus operandi for running the now-popular BallotReady site, she injects no political or personal opinion into what is simply designed as an aggregator of candidate information. So the following is what was offered about Jones to BallotReady subscribers:

“Supports making English the official language…Supports bringing our troops home now…Supports repealing Obamacare and affordable Health Care for Americans only…Opposes amnesty for illegal aliens…Opposes sanctuary cities…Supports defending borders against illegal alien drug dealers, criminals, and potential terrorists…Opposes income tax.”

BallotReady also listed Jones personal background: “University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science. Served in the U.S. Army, 1969-71. Worked as an independent insurance broker.”

Interestingly, Jones mentioned nothing about his view of Jews and the Holocaust in the information he offered on his own site, aggregated by BallotReady.

Jack Webb used to ask for “just the facts, ma’am” on Dragnet, and that’s what Chicagoan Rosman and her founding partners of BallotReady provide in educating the public on every candidate for every office, down to library board. Any voter going over a typical primary or general-election ballot often has little or no information about the majority of candidates, which in Cook County include Circuit Court judges and commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

“I felt really guilty voting,” the politically and socially-active Rosman said about casting a ballot in her first election in Chicago while attending the University of Chicago. Like almost all other voters, she was voting blind in the majority of races. Now the voter can be more educated, thanks to a combination of cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned spadework.

Working with design consultant Alex Niemczewski, a classmate at the U. of C. – from where Rosman earned a master’s in public policy — and friend Sebastian Ellefson, Rosman has brought BallotReady far and fast in true entrepreneurial fashion.  Starting in 2015, their enterprise won the New Venture Challenge at the U. of C.’s Booth School of Business. Rolled out nationally for the 2016 election, BallotReady drew 1.1 million page views then. More than $2 million in investments are in the coffers.

“We don’t write anything ourselves,” said Rosman. “We find what’s available from news sources and candidates’ web sites. We link everything back to its source so you know where it came from. We don’t want to be in the business of evaluating candidates. That’s what endorsing or news organizations are for. We want to be a one-stop shop for information.

“Sometimes candidates will talk about ‘children are our future’ or ‘I believe in education.’  So our researchers have to go through and pull out their stances. It’s important for voters to know anything objectionable. If they are making a statement like ‘Jews are money-lenders,’ that’s not a policy statement. But if a candidate said, ‘Jews must be deported,’ that’s really important for voters to know.”

But while the business end has been tied down for a startup and the endorsement-free information gathering is now established, BallotReady probably couldn’t exist in its present form without the push-pull of Rosman’s political, social and religious upbringing. She even dabbled in extremely local politics herself, winning election to the LaSalle School’s Local School Council in Wicker Park.

Before she was politically aware, the younger Rosman lived in Jerusalem in fifth through seventh grades while her mother, Barbara Penzman, worked in a rabbinical fellowship in Israel. Back home in Boston, she attended the Rashi Jewish day school through eighth grade, then graduated from Newton North High School.

“My dad would always take me to New Hampshire to see all the candidates in the (presidential) primaries,” she said. “You could drive around and hit five (campaign appearances) in one day. In 2000, we saw (Al) Gore and Bill Bradley.

“In 2004, my dad and I went down to Florida for two weeks for Operation Bubbe,” she said of the New York-based effort for northern activists going to the hanging-chad state to get Jewish and non-Jewish retirees out to vote.  

“I missed two weeks of school and almost failed two classes, but it was definitely worth it. I really liked the flow of campaign life.”

Meanwhile, the concept of tikkun olam filtered down early to Rosman from her parents.

“Those are the values they taught me,” she said. “Jews have a history of political activism. Jews have a responsibility to help repair the world, be active in the community and make a difference. That’s something that’s always been impressed upon me. I believe providing better information helps people make informed choices, so we can elect the best people to lead our communities. And that’s criminal justice, roads, schools, quality of our water. That’s all at the local level.”

While at the U. of C., Rosman took a semester off to work on a north suburban congressional campaign.  She briefly worked as a high-school math teacher. Later, she ran for her Local School Council, doing some mini-campaigning to get the votes.

“I asked my friends to come vote for me,” she said. “I ended up winning with 96 votes. There were four other candidates, two incumbents. The top two get elected, and I was one of them.”

Rosman’s interest in better vetting candidates was prompted by her own voting experience. After president, senator and governor, she noticed so many more candidates that it would make a politically-active person’s head spin.

“There were many more names on the ballot than we were familiar with,” Rosman said. “You’re either skipping them or guessing, and feeling we’ve failed this important test of democracy. That became really important to me. The more I learned about local politics, they are so important. I was so surprised judges are elected here.

“If people had more information, we can make sure we’re electing the best people for all these jobs, not just the top positions. The vetting process can hold incumbents accountable. And hopefully, more people start to run for office because they believe there’s more possibility (to serve) instead of always the same person being elected.”

Candidate profiles are even more important at the local level.  Village trustees, and members of park and library boards, are often elected on a non-partisan basis. Without a party apparatus backing them, information about candidates often leaves a cold trail.

With embryonic ideas about a candidates information site kicking around their heads, Rosman and her partners fanned out in the city during the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, distributing paper surveys asking what information was useful.

“What we found is everyone makes decisions in different ways,” Rosman said. “Some people really care if the (candidate) has experience, whether in elective office or business. Others care about endorsements. We found endorsements are pretty important, especially down-ballot where voters have less information. That’s what people use to make decisions. And some care about issue stances or a specific issue.”

The partners opted to design a site where all candidates were listed, and all information available was aggregated. Voters could then bring the information into the booth.

“It shouldn’t be like a test,” Rosman said of rote memorization about candidates’ stances.

Original seed money for the site was $500 from the U. of C.’s Institute of Politics. The big leap came when Rosman and Co. snared $30,000, beating out 15 competitors in the Booth School competition.

“We had 15 minutes and we talked about the problem, and the opportunity for impact,” she said of the pitch done with Niemczewski,  “We said each individual in Illinois was represented by 70 elected officials. How many could you name?”

BallotReady was off and running. The founders corralled another $50,000 from the National Science Foundation.

“It doesn’t go as far as you think, but it was enough to build a web site for the Kentucky gubernatorial election,” Rosman said of the site’s public unveiling.  “We drove down to Kentucky. We couch-surfed for two weeks, stayed at people’s houses and just tried to promote the site, get as many people as possible. We got 13,000 to use the site in the fall of 2015.”

The site was upgraded for the 2016 Illinois gubernatorial primary. This time, 70,000 used the site. Momentum really picked up with BallotReady live in 12 states covering 15,000 candidates. Views passed 1 million – the founders’ goal.  Old-and-new school ways of promotion were employed – partnerships with voter groups, social media and search engine optimization (SEO).

One partnership was with the League of Women Voters in Mississippi. Another was with Inspire U.S., a non-profit, non-partisan organization promoting young voters to register.

Inspire U.S. coordinator Chelsea Costello of Charleston, W.Va. learned about Ballot Ready during the 2017 elections, and decided to introduce the site to West Virginia.

“Nobody here can afford a tool that costs upwards of $5,000,” Costello told the Clarksburg (W. Va.) Exponent Telegram. “There are a lot of organizations across the state that want to provide a resource for voters in this kind of way.”

In addition to networking through political activists, BallotReady got the word out to what Rosman termed “angel investors.” The new backing has produced $1.5 million in investment. Thus BallotReady is set up for all 50 states for the fall elections. The company now has a staff of 12 with Rosman supervising day-to-day operations.

The concept of voter turnout is boosted by a more informed electorate.

“We did a study with MIT,” Niemczewski told Chicago Magazine. “It showed, when controlling for demographics and voting history, BallotReady users were 20 percent more likely to turn up for a vote.”

BallotReady has earned Rosman recognition as a millennial up-and-comer. She has been named one of Crain’s 20 in their 20s, Pacific Standard’s 30 Thinkers Under 30, a member of WeWork’s Young Innovators and was honored with the 2017 Midwest Women in Tech Award for Social Impact.

Yet all the recognition doesn’t make Rosman too important to perform the grunt work of a startup. She has written 50-cent checks to local government clerks out in the boondocks to obtain lists of candidates. The information is not computerized, so it must be faxed to BallotReady. Sometimes she and her staff must proceed one office, one election, one small town at a time.

“I would love to cover every municipal election, every school board election,” she said.  “We have to call every single county and find out every candidate.”

But in getting where Rosman wants to go, she will never forget the prime axiom of her business: all politics is local.

To sign up for access to BallotReady services, go to www.ballotready.org.

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