Who's on the Ballot? Public Affairs Professor Ester Fuchs Develops New Voter Education Website

September 09, 2013

Who’s on the Ballot, a new website that explains just that, was born out of a friendly conversation between SIPA Professor Ester Fuchs and her former student, William von Mueffling (CC’90, BUS’95). “William was complaining about the lack of information on the candidates, and I told him, ‘That’s ridiculous. Just look on the web,’” said Fuchs. “But I quickly realized it’s not that easy.”

In order to find out who would be on her ballot, Fuchs had to visit several city and state websites—even more if she wanted information on the candidates. So von Mueffling, president and chief investment officer of Cantillon Capital Management, issued Fuchs a challenge—if she was willing to cull data from these disparate sites and present everything informed New York City voters needed to know in a user-friendly format, he would fund the project.

“I couldn’t pass this up,” said Fuchs, a professor of international and political science. “This is, after all, Columbia University in the City of New York, and I knew the site would be invaluable to residents of New York City.”

Over the last year, Fuchs has worked closely with the New York City Board of Elections, which mails sample ballots a few weeks before the election, and her project manager, Chris Santulli (SIPA’12). Now prospective voters who visit Who’s on the Ballot (whosontheballot.org) and submit their address will be provided with their polling place, the next election date, who is running for office at every level of government and links to candidates’ campaign websites and social media pages. Users can also set up reminders to vote and download a mobile app. The nonpartisan website, which is available in English, Spanish and Chinese, does not record any of its users’ personal information.

Voter turnout has been steadily declining over the past 40 years, according to Fuchs. In 2009, just 28 percent of registered voters in New York City voted in the mayoral election. “If you give people easy access to this kind of information, it increases the likelihood they’ll go out and vote,” said Fuchs. “The basic premise of this site is ‘let’s make it easy.’”

Spreading the word about this resource is the next step. For this, Fuchs has built an advisory board that is comprised of leaders in nonprofit organizations, businesses and city agencies. Each group, including the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Citizens Union, the Partnership for New York City, the Immigration Coalition and the Urban League, is sharing the website with their own constituencies. Columbia political scientists Dorian Warren and Robert Shapiro, as well as Kathryn Yatrakis, dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences, are also helping with outreach. Fuchs is partnering with the City on a “Your Vote Counts” advertising campaign.

Fuchs plans to use Who’s on the Ballot in New York as a roadmap for comparable projects in other cities. “This project has broad implications because it was started in New York. If we can do it here, this can be done anywhere,” said Fuchs. “Voting is the most important participatory activity in a democracy.”

—by Meghan Berry