Racial justice nonprofit Chicago United for Equity (CUE) presented its crowdsourced voter guide last Thursday at City Bureau’s Public Newsroom 94.
The event was the 94th installment in City Bureau’s weekly series of workshops “aimed at building trust between journalists and the communities they serve.” This year’s workshops have focused on “demystifying” Chicago elections.
Thursday’s speakers included Niketa Brar, executive director of CUE, and Beatriz Ponce De Léon, executive director of Generation All. Generation All works to create equity in education and revitalize Chicago’s public neighborhood high schools. CUE started as a response to school segregation in Chicago by organizing a series of 10 community meetings, CUE is now focused on promoting racial justice through policy change.
The workshop centered on CUE’s latest project, the Vote Equity Project (VEP). According to Brar, the project was born out of the idea to create a “report card” regarding mayoral candidates’ policies, and evolved over time into a non-partisan, equity-based voting guide.
The guide, which is available both in paper and online at www.voteequity.org, seeks to answer a few basic questions. In Brar’s words, these are: “How are people going to earn the vote of everyday Chicagoans? What questions do we as voters need to be able to answer? What do we know, and what do we want to know? And how do we collectively build a vision for the city of Chicago?”
At the time of the workshop, the website had only been live for a week, but already featured voting guides at both the city and ward levels.
The project started in December of last year, when 263 ideas for policies that would increase racial equity in Chicago were crowdsourced from over 100 different community groups, including the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and Grassroots Collaborative, and individual residents of Chicago. This preliminary list of suggestions was pared down to 187 suggestions. Over 2,000 Chicagoans were then asked, “How can we make Chicago work for all of us?” The resulting 52,000 votes were used in order to rank the suggested policies by popularity. The methodology was designed and managed by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement.
According to Ponce de Léon, wording was key to get a wide range of inclusive ideas. “At one point the question was ‘What policy reform ideas would move us towards more racial equity in Chicago?’ That question wasn’t going to work, because everyone has different definitions [of equity],” so as a result, the question was eventually reworded to “How can we make Chicago work for all of us?”
The resulting ranks are available on the VEP website, sorted by number of votes and issue area: health, education, housing, safety & justice, revenue, and community development.
The VEP then sent the list of policy proposals to all 15 mayoral candidates where they were asked whether or not they agreed with the policies and were given 280 characters to elaborate on each response. Only seven of the candidates—Amara Enyia, Bob Fioretti, Lashawn Ford, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Paul Vallas—participated.
Brar said she hopes the online guide will adapt to different voting styles. For those voters who want a basic matchup or comparison of the candidates, the “Candidate Snapshot” page gives the most basic yes or no responses to the top five policy proposals in the six main issue areas. For voters inclined to do a deep dive, the “Build my Ballot” function provides much more information: using the same technology as BallotReady (an online voting guide similar to Ballotpedia), the VEP site will allow you to enter your address, and then go through each candidate competing for your vote, providing you with their top 10 financial donors, their survey responses, and publicly reported campaign platforms.
Brar was particularly excited about the project’s potential to return power to voters. “The power to define priorities is one of the key powers our elected officials have, and so we should be a part of meaningfully deciding what that prioritization looks like,” she said.