In 2004, in her junior year of high school, Avivia Rosman nearly failed two classes. However, her excuse was a good one: She had been busy mobilizing voters in a crucial swing state.
"I grew up surrounded by politics," the 28-year-old Rosman says, crediting her father, who worked on health-care policy in the Massachusetts State House, as a catalyst for political action. "During the 2004 election, my dad pulled me out of high school for two weeks. We cashed in our frequent flyer miles and flew down to Florida to knock on doors. I came back even more committed to the idea that politics and government can make a difference."
That commitment paid off. After her four-year stint with Teach for America and getting a master's degree in public policy at the University of Chicago, Rosman co-founded BallotReady in 2015, a non-partisan online voter guide to political races and referendums in the United States. BallotReady's mission is to make it easier for voters to make informed choices throughout an entire ballot, not just the top-ballot race that gets the most media coverage. And indeed, after the all-consuming presidential election cycle of last year—where any voter might be forgiven for tiring of the often-toxic election coverage—the focus of Rosman's work seems particularly relevant and necessary. In 2016's elections, BallotReady offered guidance in 12 states and the District of Columbia, covering about 15,000 candidates and 300 referendums.
"There are over 500,000 elected officials in the U.S., with the majority serving at the local level," Rosman says. "However, compared to presidential and federal officials, we hear about local elected officials a lot less. As a result, it's incredibly difficult to make informed choices when electing our judges, aldermen, and school-board leaders. Many voters respond by guessing on their ballot, leaving blanks, or staying home altogether."
In the fall of 2016, BallotReady earned one million visits to its site, something that Rosman counts as a major achievement. Indeed, research conducted in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that, in Kentucky's 2015 general election, voters who used BallotReady were 20 percent more likely to vote, even after controlling for demographics and past voting history. That's down to a lot of hard work by Rosman and her team, including gathering information on thousands of candidates, identifying political-geographic boundaries, collecting correct candidate lists, and figuring out how to design a voter guide that's most useful for voters nationwide. But that success is also a result of the can-do self-belief that pervades Rosman’s work.
"Before working on BallotReady, I used to think that creating a start-up required a business degree, some knowledge of coding, a seed round," Rosman says. "But we started off just talking to voters and creating paper voter guides to validate our problem and solution. We built our first website voter guide in a day by hosting a hackathon and buying our friends pizza."
If 2016 taught us anything, it's how badly the nation needs well-informed voters to make decisions based on facts, not media-muddled narratives. With a goal of expanding BallotReady to every candidate and election across the U.S. by 2018, Rosman is directly addressing that need.
Rosman takes inspiration from Ella Josephine Baker, a civil and human rights advocate whose historic work spanned five decades.
"If she were still alive, I would love to have lunch with Baker," Rosman says. "I admire her organizing technique, her leadership, and her pragmatism during the civil rights movement. I think I could learn a lot from talking to her about the challenges we face today, 50 years later."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.