Site Puts Focus On Local Elections

After exposure to months of campaigning, debating, and television ads, most voters will be familiar with the major presidential tickets this election day. But when it comes to the vast rosters of local and state candidates running for office in November, few people are as knowledgeable—a fact that Harvard Business School student Summer M. Nemeth intends to change,.

Nemeth’s project, a new Web site called Imagine Election, allows Massachusetts residents to find personalized information about their local candidates by typing in their home address.

The site is aimed particularly at students, who often go out of state for school, and may therefore be less prepared when asked to vote on candidates from their home state.

“A lot of people have told me when they vote and don’t know the names that it’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling,” said Nemeth, who is a second-year MBA student. “So I think having the opportunity to actually know the names of their choices will motivate more people to go out to the polls.”

The current voting system, Nemeth added, caters to locals who have lived in the same place for a long time—often owning a house and having children in the local public school—rather than to people whose roots don’t go quite so deep.

According to Nemeth, the potential for confusion is increased by the complexities of boundary lines between districts.

“I live in the 8th Congressional district, the 6th Governor’s Council district, the 1st Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex district for State Senator, and then the 16th Suffolk district for state representative,” she said. “That’s why students don’t know about local candidates. It’s not the candidates’ fault and it’s not the students’ fault.”

But with the Imagine Election site, voters won’t need to know their district to see which candidates they can call their own.

One user, Brian M. McCarthy, whose son is a fellow MBA student with Nemeth, said the site was a straightforward way to review ballot questions and research information about candidates.

“I get the mailing from the Secretary of State on the ballot questions, but I very seldom go through and read the pros and cons of every issue,” he said. “With this site, I’m able to click on them, skim through them real fast, and see a ‘yes’ vote means this, a ‘no’ vote means this.”

Robert Willington, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said he agreed that Imagine Election plays an important role in streamlining user-specific information for voters.

“There is nothing worse than voting at the top of the ticket, and then blanking the bottom races due to a lack of information, ignorance,” he wrote in an e-mail. “With [Imagine Election], there is no excuse for being ignorant about your ballot.”

In addition to easing the process for voters, Nemeth said she hopes the Web site will level the playing field for candidates. Voters lacking easy access to information are too easily swayed by candidates’ incumbency status, party affiliation, and spending on advertising, Nemeth said.

“I think people should be elected on the basis of their qualifications and ideas, and a site like mine enables voters to see what those qualifications and ideas are,” she said.

Nemeth, who studied computer science as a University of Michigan undergraduate, said she conceived Imagine Election a couple of years ago when she began receiving postcards about hometown candidates. But she didn’t act on her plan until this summer, aided by a fellowship from the HBS Social Enterprise Institute.

Besides coding the site, Nemeth writes most of the candidate profiles herself, along with a small group of freelance writers. Information is taken from the Web sites of candidates, who are then allowed to edit their profiles if they wish.

Candidates are currently included on the site for free, but Nemeth said that once candidates see the benefit of being profiled on the site, she plans to charge them a fee. Of the 258 candidates running for seats in the Massachusetts state legislature, 257 are currently on the site, and Nemeth said she plans to track down the remaining candidate in the upcoming days.

So far, Nemeth’s site is limited to Massachusetts, but she said she hopes the project will expand over time.

“This or something like it is absolutely the way of the future,” she said.

—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at aperloff@fas.harvard.