Interview: Ballotpedia’s Josh Altic

As we kick off the election cycle with the Texas primaries, the first in the 2022 election cycle, an increasingly popular resource has now reached a point of depth and sophistication that gives voters little excuse to remain uninformed about candidates. 

Ballotpedia was established in 2007 on a mission to collect and offer neutral and accurate information to every consumer free of cost, about American politics at every level of government.

In a partisan world, the nonpartisan Ballotpedia does its best to convey information in a neutral bite size format. I spoke to Josh Altic from the organization. “Besides elections, we also cover policy and process and everything from federal elections down to statewide elections, school board elections, city elections, ballot measures.”

Josh Altic

Texas’ election attention went to the gubernatorial race where incumbent Governor Greg Abbott prevailed against two opponents who attacked him from the right. In the end, Abbott avoided a runoff with about 2/3 of the Republican primary vote, no small feat. 

Ballotpedia was a great resource for many on that race looking to learn about Abbott’s key votes and positions on policy items. People could also research his opponents’ positions and make a quick informed decision on one site.

“We’re always trying to expand. Our scope right now goes to the top 100 largest cities. Just this year, we’re trying to increase to the top 200. And that includes school districts that are within those cities, as well as county-wide races. And one project I really love is is actually our recall project, because since there are few enough recalls, we try to cover recalls comprehensively. We are covering recalls for cities that have a few hundred or a few thousand residents.”

Interestingly, every local race is covered in California, the largest state, due to high readership and usage. Altic said the information gap is larger with smaller races.

Founded by current President and CEO, Leslie Graves in 2007, Ballotpedia’s original goal was to cover gaps in information on statewide races. This became increasingly important during the huge flip in 2010 when Republicans took over many state legislature seats held by Democrats. 

Last year special off-year obscure elections, such as in West Texas, were key in providing an insight on the changing electorate and national mood, further proven by strong Republican performance in Virginia and New Jersey in November 2021. 

Altic, a specialist in the ballot measures space, enjoys the issue focus but reminds us that there are many states with no citizens’ ballot measure process. But for those that do, he expects fireworks on key issues including sports betting and gambling where federal legislation have forced states to address the laws around it, and abortion, which will be on the ballot in several states especially conservative ones.  

When 2 or 3 states target the same policy, it becomes a “trend” earning more attention. 

“Interesting [trends] to look for are on income taxes, specifically high income levels, sometimes called millionaires taxes. Although one in Arizona is not a million dollars, it’s less than that.”

Tax policies in conservative states often try to drop or “flatten” the number of tax brackets.

“The Arizona Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to flatten the rate, it reduced it to from, four or five brackets down to two brackets. And then, if revenue is high enough, it actually makes it a flat tax in Arizona. Advocates, and some teacher unions didn’t like that. So they collected signatures to challenge that bill. It’s a process called a veto referendum or a people’s veto. So they collect the signatures to let voters decide to repeal a law the legislature just passed. Massachusetts went the other direction. It has a millionaire’s tax for education on the ballot this year.”

Interestingly there are ballot measures about ballot measures. Altic said, “One thing to watch out for is super-majority requirements in South Dakota, Arkansas, North Dakota, and possibly other states, including Florida,  to increase the vote threshold, you would need to pass a future ballot measure. These include  either a constitutional amendment or in South Dakota, any sort of tax increase or or measure that appropriates a certain amount of money would require a 60% threshold instead of a simple majority of 50. Most of these provisions are in state constitutions. So to change them, the legislature has to ask voters to approve the change.”

Three full time Ballotpedia writers ensure the site gives the yes side and no side information, with key quotes from proponents.  “We have a pretty set recipe for these ballot measures. It’s important for us is to give a neutral summary of just what the measure would do, what’s the effect of a yes vote and the effect of a no vote. We also want to get readers familiar with what they’re going to see on the ballot. So we have a section devoted to the text of the measure, including the ballot language, but also the full legal text. So if a reader doesn’t want to trust our analysis, or doesn’t want to trust supporters and opponents and really want to just look at the legal texts, the nitty gritty of the legal texts, we always include that on our pages. Any sort of analyses or white papers that come out by the support or opposition side will be listed in those sections. We really try to highlight the strongest arguments on both sides, the most recognizable and most important endorsements on both sides.”

But they always say, follow the money. One popular feature Ballotpedia provides organizes the money trails. Altic says “One of my favorite sections is our campaign finance information, we curate all of that ourselves, we go to the straight to the the state reporting websites and download that data. Then try and present it in a very easy to digest fashion with support and opposition totals, and then top donors who are actually giving the most money to back these or to oppose them.”

Political context is key. They have a good background section too, such as measures that are trying to repeal a policy that’s been in place for 30 years. Or maybe it is a completely new idea. Other questions answered are how many other states have the same policy? And have they worked in other states? It is a great tool for the reader. 

Ballotpedia is looking to up their game with their new survey which allows candidates to submit their own content for further accuracy. https://ballotpedia.org/Survey

About the author: Marc Ang (marc@aib2b.org) is a community organizer in Southern California and the founder of Asian Industry B2B. He is also an animal welfare advocate who believes in looking at the lifespan of an animal and the big picture to craft practical legislation that respects the bond of an animal and its owner. Marc’s book “Minority Retort” will be released in mid 2022

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