Sure, it’s a cliche and all, but for Ryan Johnson necessity did breed invention.
Johnson is the guy who built and maintains MSP Votes, a data-driven guide to elections created last spring to track the Minneapolis municipal election, and which is now looking to do the same with local races on the ballot this year.
“It arrived accidentally and slowly,” he says of the site. “I’d been working on this on the side, on and off. It was like, ‘Okay, let’s put some data in this.’”
Last year, MSP Votes eventually came to feature vast amounts of data on both the Minneapolis and St. Paul municipal elections: endorsements, forums, contributors and donations, much of it cross-referenced. Click on a candidate to find their endorsements, for example, and you’d be able to see which other candidates were supported by the group that endorsed.
It was a ton of raw information collected in one place, and over the course of the campaign it became a go-to resource for local political junkies. It also brought up a question: Who did all that work?
‘It was important so people trust the information’
That would be Johnson. “That’s all me,” Johnson said. “I do all the coding. I’ve done a lot of the data entry. This is what I do professionally so it’s easy for me to spend an hour and do a lot.”
But the reason MSP Votes exists is because Johnson needed it to exist. He has long wanted to find ways to get millennials like himself more interested in local politics, and one of the inspirations for MSP Votes came from social media friends who are “politically interested to a point” — but whose interest often ended at their ward boundary.
After he started building the site, he said, he had a ready answer when some of those same friends would ask him where to find information on other races. “I could say, ‘Here’s this website that I made,’” Johnson said.
Around the same time, John Edwards, who started and developed WedgeLIVE into a hyperlocal political presence, offered his help and to host the site. “We met on social media, on Twitter,” Edwards said. “We were interested in the same types of things.”
Among their shared interests: land use, density and affordable housing. Both are involved in the formation of the pro-density organization Neighbors for More Neighbors. “He’s really talented,” Edwards said of Johnson. “It takes a really talented person to drive something like that and make it accessible. He’s able to take that data and create something that’s remarkable.”
Partnering with WedgeLIVE gave MSP Votes a built-in audience but it also presented a problem. While both are interested in getting people more involved in local politics, WedgeLIVE is filled with commentary — much of it hilarious and cutting — and even endorsed candidates in local Minneapolis races. But both Edwards and Johnson knew that for MSP Votes to succeed, it couldn’t play favorites.
“We were trying to present everyone on an equal-ish level so that everyone has a chance in city politics,” Johnson said. “That was the point. What I was sort of hoping was that anyone could use this and have it inform their vote without providing an opinion.”
“It was important so people trust the information,” Edwards said of the opinion-free zone. “You’re not trying to put a perspective out there. You’re just trying to get information out so people can judge for themselves.
“You’d feel dirty if you took the data and decided I’m not going to put this out, I’m just going to put that out. You have to put it all out there.”
A slow build
By design, MSP Votes initially launched with a focus on lower-ballot municipal races like city council and park board. “People don’t pay attention to it as much and that’s where one vote can really matter a lot,” Johnson said. “They all matter a lot, but it’s like there’s so much time and money required in local elections, if you are aware of what is going on when you vote you can counteract that. Hopefully. Also, there were a lot of people running in 2017 and I wanted to make sure they all were getting some air time.”
The site evolved over the spring and summer of 2017 as Johnson added content. At first, it included a list of official candidates, with links to their websites and social media as well as endorsements by organizations.
Johnson then decided that posting links to video and audio recordings of campaign forums would be useful, so he added that feature. Later he added surveys and questionnaires sent to candidates by interest groups (yes, the Minneapolis Alliance for Goats was included). Later still came scans of the mail that was filling mailboxes across the wards as election day neared.
What had started with Minneapolis also began to include races for St. Paul mayor and school board. But because Johnson, Edwards and other core supporters didn’t know as much about St. Paul politics, there is no analysis of donations and endorsements.
Edwards said that lack of expertise was the main impediment to expanding the reach of MSP Votes. “Minneapolis was time consuming but it was easier in that we knew the lay of the land,” Edwards said. “So if you talk about expanding to St. Paul or doing local statehouse and school board races it becomes a lot of work and it’s hard to devote that much time to something, especially for a person who is not getting compensated.”
Perhaps the most important asset on the site was the depth of information on campaign finances. Financial reporting for city races has serious shortcomings that make it harder to follow the money. Sporadic filing deadlines provide plenty of legal opportunities to delay — and therefore hide — contributions and expenditures until after the election.
Another flaw is the lack of a requirement to file reports electronically. Candidates, for example, can send in a pdf rather than a spreadsheet, which means that some reports looked like printed-out pdfs that were photocopied multiple times and then scanned into a muddy, barely legible mess. Some are even handwritten.
“Hennepin County makes it so much harder to do something like this than if you were to do it at the federal or state level,” Edwards said.
The lack of any protocols means poring through dozens and dozens of page of reports to actually extract any meaningful information.
To sort the information for MSP Votes, Johnson said he, Edwards and others would go through the reports and collect money into groupings. Some categories were predictable: unions, developers, PACs, lobbyists. But others came only from pouring over hundreds of pages of contributions and seeing names appearing frequently. That, for example, led to a category for “Kaplans” — for DFL donors Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. Another was “Waste,” created when they started seeing contributions from garbage haulers.
Because of the politics surrounding the minimum wage, donors from those associated with restaurants and bars began to show up in noticeable quantities.
“A lot of that knowledge came from starting at reports and saying, ‘Oh, hey, I think I’ve seen this name before,’” Johnson said.
Added Edwards: “It does take knowing who’s who in local politics.”
As the site became better known, it also benefited from crowdsourcing. Users and friends would message him about forums, endorsements and especially mailings.
So what’s next?
For 2018, Johnson has begun with a limited set of races: state House races around the Twin Cities, Hennepin and Ramsey County races, Minneapolis school board and the special election for St. Paul city council Ward 4. He might add Three Rivers Parks and races for judge positions.
As in 2017, he wants to start by focusing on races with less coverage and attention and expand from there as he gains resources. To that end, he hopes to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise some money to perhaps hire some data entry help or to compensate his own work. He said he’d like to hire a designer to help with a more unified user experience.
“I haven’t really had time to do business planning because I’ve always been like ‘I need to develop this feature because this is happening in politics right now.’ ” Johnson said. “If successful it could give me a several months to work out a good business plan so I can raise more money to grow. I want to cover the state well this year. Beyond that I’m not really sure.”