New York City residents are not known for shying away from expressing their political views. Still, voter turnout remains a problem, and Ester Fuchs has set out to fix it.
Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science in the School of International and Public Affairs, spearheaded the creation of the website Who’s on the Ballot in an effort to combat voter apathy. Users enter their home addresses, and the website provides a list of candidates, polling locations, and other election information—ranging from the presidential nominees to state assembly candidates. It also allows users to schedule a reminder to vote on their smartphones or computers.
“The catalyst of the project was a conversation with a former student who expressed frustration about getting information on candidates,” Fuchs said.
Although 61.5 percent of New York City voters turned out in the 2008 presidential election, only 5 percent of registered voters participated in the 2011 judicial elections, a decline Fuchs attributed to the difficulty of demonstrating the importance of voting.
The website targets young voters and new immigrants, who have historically been disengaged from the political process. In particular, Fuchs wanted to stress social media by providing links to the candidates’ Facebook and Twitter pages, a feature designed to cater to young people’s interests as well as provide accessible information to voters with busy work schedules.
“The differences between this website and, I think, other efforts to do this are partly the streamlined nature of it, the simplicity of it, the ability to just access the information you need quickly and easily,” Fuchs said. “Ours is really a public service.”
The creative team behind Who’s on the Ballot hosted a video contest that ends on Monday, challenging Columbia students to create a promotional video for the site. The winning team will have their video posted on the site and dine with Fuchs and Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
“It’s a great way to engage students,” Fuchs said. “I’m hoping the students get into it and enjoy it.”
Although Fuchs has made an effort to publicize the website, political science professor Andrew Gelman said that “the hard thing is getting people to go to the site in the first place. Personal recommendations have a larger effect” than big systems like websites, he noted.
The website may help spread information on local elections, which garner less attention than national ones and are often overlooked by the public, said Janine Balekdjian, CC ’13 and president of Columbia University Democrats.
“Plenty of informed people who pay close attention to presidential, senatorial, and congressional elections forget about or pay less attention to state and local elections, and yet it is often those political offices which have the most impact on their day-to-day life,” Balekdjian said.
Mingming Feng, CC ’14 and general manager of the Columbia Political Union, said that the website will serve as a valuable tool to help citizens understand the importance of voting.
“By consolidating voter information, the website gives voters the opportunity to examine the political issues at stake and make educated decisions,” she said. “Voting shows a basic level of commitment and attachment to political issues, but certainly, educating voters is an effort that extends beyond the casting of a ballot.”