With the election less than a month away, voters' pamphlets have begun to arrive. They're dense packets, full of printed information on state propositions and candidates to help voters make an informed decision—but they remain difficult to read, much less fully understand. With small text composed mostly of biased analysis without citations, they're a great example of information overload.
Then there's ballot.fyi. Designed and written by the artist and former Ideo designer Jimmy Chion, the site details the propositions being put to a vote in the state of California in straightforward, nonpartisan language (with bright colors and fun graphics!). It's instantly more approachable than government-issued pamphlets or any partisan voter guide.
"Local issues are a way to get people excited about politics without bringing up Trump and Hillary—that’s either decided for a lot of people, or it’s exhausting," Chion says. "These are all things that we should be voting on and will be affecting us very heavily."
In California, there are some hot-button issues up for a vote on November 8, from the death penalty to the legalization of marijuana to a ban on plastic bags. Chion started the project with Prop 60, which requires porn stars to wear condoms during sex, and he sent the copy he wrote to friends, who added suggestions.
Rather than pro-and-con lists or the emotionally driven, biased, and often misleading for-and-against essays printed in voter pamphlets, Chion decided to format his explanation of the issue like a text message conversation. The different arguments and counterpoints are delivered in quick bites (complete with sources), as well as summary sections such as "Look, I'm a 5th grader and have 1 minute" and "Why is this even on the ballot?" The bottom of each proposition page has a list of citations and further reading, including editorials and more impartial information.
It's difficult to write about any political issue in an entirely unbiased way—though Chion, who leans left, has done his best. The site doesn't include the partisan essays from the voter pamphlets, and Chion purposely didn't indicate which arguments are held more widely by Republicans or Democrats. His main strategy to check his own biases was to run his writing about issues like gun control and marijuana legalization by his conservative friends, who provided ways for him to alter his language to take out some of the bias. He's also relied on emails from readers of ballot.fyi. Chion has been fielding messages from partisan groups and individuals who think that his language slants one way or the other, and has used the feedback to improve the site.
These responses have also helped Chion think about the issues from new perspectives. One such issue arose with Prop 56, which will increase the tax on cigarettes by $2. The lesser known part of the proposition also raises taxes on e-cigarettes and vaporizers. Chion received an email from a woman whose mother used a vaporizer instead of smoking cigarettes, which has improved her health. While vaporizers can be problematic because they could convince kids to try cigarettes, they also might improve the health of long-time smokers—an example of how these issues aren't clear-cut and always have multiple implications.
Chion's goal is to convince more people to vote on state measures, and help them make more informed decisions (in the 2014 statewide election, only 42% of registered voters turned out, and though the national primaries this year showed a surge in voter registration, only 49% voted).
The process of building the site was certainly educational for him, he says. "Even for heavy issues like gun control, the death penalty, the prison population in California, there are a lot of issues that I felt like I should have known about beforehand," Chion says. He still isn't sure which way he'll vote for some of the propositions. "I understand both sides now and I’ve heard from both groups," he says. "It’s actually very hard to tease out. There are some that feel obvious, there’s no group or publication supporting it. And then there are others that are split in the middle."
Chion soft launched the site on October 3. He only sent it to his friends, but in its first 48 hours it garnered 100,000 likes on Facebook, reaching about 300,000 people. Now the site gets about 15,000 hits a day, and its Instagram has nearly 3,000 followers. He's still figuring out how to reach this audience via emails and social media in order to follow up about the propositions in an engaging but educational way, and while he wishes he had left more time to create guides like this for other states, there are none in the works.
For now, California voters have a beautifully designed guide to the propositions awaiting their decision. Chion's ballot.fyi is a reminder there is more to politics than the circus antics of this year's national election, when state elections have been overshadowed—but are as important as ever.
[All Images: via Jimmy Chion]