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How Two Chicago Tech Companies Geared Up for the 2016 Election

Alex Niemczewski was frustrated as she stared at her ballot in 2012.  “There were all these offices I’d never heard of, names I’ve never heard of,” she said. “I left some blanks and I felt like I didn’t do my civic duty.” It was that experience that led to the founding of BallotReady -- a comprehensive, non-partisan breakdown of your ballot -- in 2014. After 3 months building the site at 1871, multiple primaries and the addition of two co-founders, the site is now ready for the 2016 election, the first presidential election for the startup which can still be found working hard out of the University of Chicago conference room.

 


Now providing full ballot breakdowns for 11 states, including Illinois, Niemczewski admits that while tech has certainly influenced the democratic process in recent years, building BallotReady didn’t get built without some old school techniques as well.

“Thirty-percent of local election boards don’t have websites,” she said, meaning that her and her team in some cases were visiting the offices in person to get the data they needed for the BallotReady platform, in some cases taking photos of the sample ballots and sending faxed requests in order to get the information needed. “It’s not like there’s just an API we can plug into.”

Despite the legwork, Niemczewski hopes the platform will accomplish the goals BallotReady has set forth for itself: Increasing informed votes and increasing voter turnout. And one doesn’t come without the other -- through a series of user testing and interviews, she’s found voters are more likely to head to the polls when they discover something they’re passionate about on the ballot. She uses the example of interviewing a group of Chicago high school students about the platform. When they discovered a local alderman was proposing a curfew, they immediately started asking questions and talking about their votes.

“What we know is people feel better about voting when they know their vote has more power,” she said. In this case, it’s especially important for the public to be informed on down ballot measures and small local offices.

While BallotReady is using their technology to better inform voters while they’re in the polling place itself, 1871 member Evolve Security Academy is driving the conversation about tech’s evolving role in the election process. At an event just a week before Election Day, the academy hosted ThreatConnect -- a company closely following the Russian hacks and disclosures ahead of the election -- for a conversation titled Hacking the Presidential Election: The Dimensions of Russian Interference.”

“The … event came about because of the combination of Evolve's expertise in cyber security and my background as an Estonian diplomat and analyst with experience in cyber policy and strategy,” said Patrik Maldre, Managing Partner at Retel Partners, who presented at the event. “The event focused on Russian election interference as a timely and relevant topic that demonstrates the increasing connectedness of cyber security and international relations.”

Another thought from Maldre: While it may not be anytime soon, the US could one day follow Estonia’s lead and develop a system for anonymous, online voting. That won’t be possible, of course, without continued attention being paid to cyber security.

The event was one of many hosted by Evolve on the topic of cyber security. The academy cyber security bootcamp that provides students with hands-on training from highly experienced industry professionals and partners with not-for-profits, performing security assessment work throughout the curriculum, giving each student the real project work experience and concrete practical skills that are needed to land or advance a career.

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