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2014 for 2016: Supporting Innovations in Voter Information

By Tom Glaisyer / 2014 October 16th

This post is by Tom Glaisyer, Kelly Born, and Jonathan Kartt. Tom Glaisyer is the Program Director of the Informed Participation Initiative at the Democracy Fund. Kelly Born is a Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation, where she works on both Special Projects and the Madison Initiative, and Jonathan Kartt works in Programs & Evaluation for the Rita Allen Foundation.

Last week, we shared our early research on voter information platforms and the breadth of exciting new organizations that our research unearthed. The impetus: The Hewlett Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Democracy Fund all share an interest in better equipping voters with the information they need: to participate in elections, vote in ways that reflect their interests, understand candidate positions and ballot issues, and to keep track of their representatives.

We partnered to explore dozens of these platforms, and quickly realized that we weren’t sure how best to support the field, or which groups to partner with. So the Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation crafted an RFP to solicit proposals from a handful of potential nonprofit partners, with the goal of funding them in a rapid-cycle innovation project. We were open to all kinds of ideas, and suggested a few possibilities:

  • Consulting Support: Because the ultimate success of any voter information platform depends on the quality of its design and resultant resonance with users, we suggested potential projects aimed at supporting design iteration and experimentation.
  • Implementation Support: These needed to be projects that were essentially shovel-ready, capable of being fielded before (and tested during) the 2014 election cycle.
  • Learning Support: There is much to be learned during this election cycle that might help inform later work in 2016. So we were open to jointly establishing a learning agenda for 2014 and then pairing nonprofit partners with researchers to test the effectiveness of different innovations.

Ultimately the proposals we received included some combination of all of these options.

Independently, the three foundations reviewed and assessed the pros and cons of all of the proposals, and between us we are now funding three public charities that responded to the RFP:

  • The Healthy Democracy Fund, to pilot its deliberative ballot decision-making approaches in Arizona and Colorado, and to conduct communications research around the efforts to understand what kind of messaging works with voters.
  • Maplight, to further develop its Voter’s Edge tool such that it can be more easily embedded in other platforms (e.g., news sites, civic organizations).
  • Seattle City Club’s Living Voters Guide, to further develop the site and to expand it to encompass not just ballot information but candidate data, including information from Voter’s Edge.

All of these projects include a research component to help understand what nonpartisan information resonates with voters, in hopes that we can learn and improve in future election cycles.

We are optimistic about the possibilities of these charitable projects, and about innovations in the sector more broadly - both for-profit and non-profit. These efforts offer hope that in future cycles citizens will have access to—and use—a wealth of information for even down-ticket races.

But we also have (lots of) questions:

  • When do people search for this information? How do they find it?
  • How do you expand the audience beyond political junkies to reach a broader population?
  • How useful do voters find this information? When and how does it actually influence decision-making?
  • What formats do voters prefer?
  • Do the platforms increase public trust in the political process or might some, particularly those that offer candidate matching, increase polarization?
  • How can the platforms be sustained?
  • Are the approaches scalable? What level of data standardization is desirable or feasible? For example, it is currently easy to get information on Congressional candidates, but much harder to digitally aggregate even the names of candidates for down-ballot races, let alone any meaningful information about them.

We are wrestling with these questions, supporting some research with these partners to test aspects of them, and exploring more broadly how we can aid the emerging community of practice that exists around this next generation of nonpartisan voter information tools. As always, we welcome your comments.

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