On what was literally the darkest day of 2018, the winter solstice, IF completed its work on a project that will cast a great deal of light on Chicago’s 2019 municipal election, slated for February 26. The ultimate purpose of the project, begun in August of this year, was to enhance the electoral coverage provided by partner Ballotpedia by engaging citizens in generating the questions that candidates respond to on Ballotpedia.org. Given past voter turnout rates and Ballotpedia’s popularity as a source of reliable election information, the project’s results are likely to be viewed by some 100,000 Chicagoans. In sheer size, the project thus ranks among the largest “infogagement” efforts ever completed. It also represents a step-wise growth in IF’s reach.
Funding from Chicago’s McCormick Foundation made it possible to undertake the Chicago project, a scaled-up version of a similar pilot project IF completed with Ballotpedia in the fall of 2017 to cover school board races in Des Moines, Iowa. As we did in Des Moines, IF ran a series of small group discussions both online and in-person, this time involving 144 diverse participants in all.
Recruiting was done by both IF’s on-the-ground contract facilitator, Maya Lea, local partner City Bureau, and through multiple online and other channels. The discussion sessions—run by Lea and IF Fellows—generated over 600 questions, which were then culled by IF Fellow Shannon Wheatley Hartman to eliminate duplicate and unsuitable questions. The resulting list of 100 questions were then pooled and ranked by participants in importance with the aid of software deployed the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement.
Having turned over the questions and a report detailing the process that generated them to Ballotpedia, IF’s work on the project is largely done. Ballotpedia will now further cut the question list we gave them down into a survey of some 20 questions that it will distribute to municipal candidates. Candidates’ answers will be posted on Ballotpedia.org as they are received for voters to view. Ballotpedia is also planning a significant outreach effort to publicize the project and the availability of its results, including a newly launched newsletter called “Deep Dish” that is achieving extremely high viewership (https://ballotpedia.org/The_Deep_Dish).
We are gratified that the project has rewarded the considerable effort that went into it. We have also learned many lessons in the process, the most important of which are that a partner like Ballotpedia can both significantly leverage our resources and connect the IF discussion approach to actual citizens’ decisions.