We Vote's National Digital Voter Guides are Taking the Confusion out of Voting

September 25, 2018 | Tech Nonprofits

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting

This is the ninth piece in Fast Forward’s 2018 Accelerator Series featuring We Vote, a national, digital voter guide that leverages the power of networks to make voting easier. 

“We’ve seen such a technology explosion since the early dot com days, but there’s been a lot less effort put into reducing social problems. As a country, we’ve optimized for profit and a lot of why we are where we are is because we’ve taken that a little too far. We need to optimize for community.”

Reading a State Voter Guide from cover to cover takes 15 hours, which may point to why 20% of U.S. voters don’t vote all the way down the ballot. This would mean that in the 2012 election, almost 26,000,000 voters didn’t complete their ballot. On top of that, 48.9% of people are paying attention to issues around them, but not actively voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues. We Vote wants to change that. Its Co-Founders, Dale McGrew and Jenifer Fernandez Ancona – along with a crew of 100 volunteers, built the first free app that aggregates voter guides nationally from organizations and individuals, so voters can cut through the information clutter and quickly identify how those with similar values are voting.

The Big Idea

26,000,000 voters didn’t vote all the way down the ballot in the 2012 election. As the first national, digital voter guide, We Vote makes it easy to cut through the information clutter and vote your values.

A Technologist Turned Ballot-Junkie

A technologist by trade, Dale McGrew, Co-Founder of We Vote, is no stranger to politics. Growing up, his mother was a political activist, so politics was ever-present in the household. From dinner table conversations to political gatherings in the living room, people in the community looked to Dale’s mother for advice on how to vote down the ticket.

While nothing made Dale happier than perfecting a line of code, founding two social enterprises during his 16 year career as an engineer, Dale’s deeply-ingrained passion for politics persisted. He regularly attended ballot parties, connecting with others interested in deconstructing their ballots. “We’d all get tons of mailers each election, which we’d go through together. It took forever,” Dale said. “I’ve always felt the information clutter was a weird systems problem – there’s too much information to dig through.”

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
Dale McGrew | Photo credit: We Vote

As a result of the information overload, bottom-ballot measures are frequently dismissed. Positions like Water Board, School Board, and even judges are often overlooked simply because of the time required to adequately research candidates. And this has critical implications on our everyday lives.

So when Dale found himself wondering what was next after selling his second company, politics came to the forefront. “I wanted to do something that would help make the world better for my son,” Dale said. “We’ve seen such a technology explosion since the early dot com days, but there’s been a lot less effort put into reducing social problems. As a country, we’ve optimized for profit and we are where we are today because we’ve taken that a little too far. We need to optimize for community.”

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
Dale McGrew at the Fast Forward Accelerator

Reducing Voter Confusion

As one who cares deeply about social justice, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona realized early on that politics was one of the biggest levers of change available. In 2000, Jenifer took a job with a local assemblywoman, Hannah-Beth Jackson. “One of the problems Hannah-Beth had identified was the confusion voters were feeling around what measures on the ballot really meant,” Jenifer said. The names on the ballot were confusing and didn’t point to what the measure was actually about. For example, ‘The Clear Skies Act of 2003’ initiative was all about giving polluters more free reign.

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona | Photo credit: We Vote

Jenifer and her husband took action to help voters sift through the manipulative language and designed a collaborative voter guide under the brand of an organization called Speak Out California. They aggregated all of the major progressive groups’ endorsements on each initiative and displayed them on a handout. People loved the Speak Out California collaborative voter guide, and its success sparked an “a-ha” moment for the pair.

They productized it into DemDash, a for-profit digital voter guide. But they eventually decided not to invest their time into the product, as Jenifer took on more roles in the political world, including serving as Vice President of the Women Donors Network. Still, Jenifer’s friends continued asking her how to vote each election cycle. She thought to herself about the collaborative voter guide, “It’s still a really good idea. I wish someone would do it.”

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
Jenifer with Tory Gavito and Leah Hunt Hendrix, Co-Founders of Way to Win

Breaking Down the Ballot Barriers

Years later, Dale and Jenifer met at a party. During their conversation, their mutual passion for politics and shared desire for increased ballot accessibility came to light. Jenifer told Dale about DemDash, and something immediately clicked for Dale. What if he took the initial DemDash idea, incorporated as a nonprofit, and made it even easier for users to pinpoint how to vote with their values? The nonprofit piece was particularly critical.

“The way you win in the for-profit space is you own the market,” Dale said. “Being a for-profit in the voting technology space would demand those types of practices, which would not serve the voter. For a digital voter guide to succeed, we were going to need an open strategy, to leverage the community, and to build trust by focusing on delivering mission-based success.”

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
Jenifer and Dale enjoying Halloween with their families | Photo credit: We Vote

We Vote Helps Voters Vote all the Way Down the Ballot

Two years later, Dale and Jenifer launched We Vote, the first open-source digital voter guide. Always free for voters, We Vote shows what’s on each ballot and where organizations and individuals across the country stand with candidates, dramatically reducing the time and research required to head to the polls informed. “It started as an evolutionary side project for me that I couldn’t stop thinking about,” Dale said. “I deeply believe we need to raise the voices of local people – people who are not paid consultants.” Dale got involved with Code for America in We Vote’s early days, hosting hackathons to rally volunteer support. Thanks to this effort and We Vote’s open source model, the app has been a 100% volunteer effort.

We Vote scrapes ballot content from sites like Ballotpedia and Google Civic. Once ballot data is in the system, We Vote allows organizations to enter their endorsements for measures and candidates. On the voter side, voters tag issues they care about, like climate change or pro-choice/pro-life legislation, and We Vote creates a personalized voter Issue Score for any given candidate or measure. The score is based on the number of endorsements from organizations the voter trusts.

Issue Score
Issue Score | Photo credit: We Vote

We Vote Takes the Confusion out of Voting

One We Vote user reflected on how grateful she was for the app during the last election. For weeks, she’d dreaded looking through the heaps of mailers she’d received. “I was procrastinating and feeling both a desire and pressure to cast a vote. When I downloaded We Vote, I was relieved to see all the ballot items in one place, with the most relevant information I needed to make an informed choice about initiatives, candidates… even judges! I went to my polling place feeling confident and clear.”

“We Vote is needed, and it’s overdue,” Jenifer said. “Most people don’t vote or don’t vote all the way down the ballot because they don’t have the information they need readily available.” To date, We Vote has served over 24,000 voters and has gathered ballot data for more than 50 elections, including over 44,000 candidates.

We Vote is Taking the Confusion out of Voting
We Vote team at Code for SF | Photo credit: We Vote

Dale is committed to making We Vote the go-to app for civic engagement. “I can’t imagine doing anything but this right now because I have hope for raising the level of political conversation to drown out the manipulation. I’m optimistic,” he said. “America is such an amazing place that we’ve got to fight to protect.” We Vote is closing the gap between the people who care, and the people who care to vote.