Alumni Spotlight: Jim Cupples, PS Alum turned Civic Tech Leader
In 2006, Jim and his wife relocated to Oregon from the “big apple” with the intention of becoming Ducks. Jim enrolled as an English major and participated in the “Troops to Teachers” program as he planned to eventually teach high school English.
However, a funding cut, which ended the “Troops to Teachers” program and a Political Science course with Prof. Ken DeBevoise, redirected his future into the exploding world of civic technology.
Like many of DeBevoise’s students, Jim found a passion for politics and the realities of public engagement within our political systems. Jim says, “There is only one reason I became a political science major, and that is due to the classes taught by Ken DeBevoise. I took four classes with Professor DeBevoise and became very close with the other students who took his classes. To this day I still keep in touch with many of them.”
With a new major in mind, Jim’s career objectives changed and he continued to cultivate his knowledge and enthusiasm for civic technology. He is now the BallotPath Project Lead at NationBuilder.
NationBuilder is a Los Angeles based civic tech startup company that is working on the BallotPath Project, which has one simple purpose: to make candidacy information easier to find and encourage more citizens to run for office.
NationBuilder’s mission with the BallotPath Project is to break down the steps for getting on the ballot for all elected offices and make it available online for free, and in an easy to understand format.
In 2015, Jim was hired by NationBuilder to continue the BallotPath project with them. He travels to Los Angeles for approximately one week each month to work with software engineers/developers and meet with the Los Angeles based interns. He also leads the Oregon interns such as a current Political Science major, Ethan McCormack.
Interning for Jim at BallotPath has been great. Whereas many of my Political Science classes have examined the effect of low voter turnout in elections, few have looked at the equally important issue of low candidate turnout. Democracy is an exercise in choice and the BallotPath project seeks to increase the candidacy turnout side of that equation. Thus allowing for more democratic choice. Inasmuch, BallotPath has been entirely revealing in terms of developing my ability to understand the candidate mechanics of the election process and just how important increasing candidacy turnout is for a healthy democracy. – Ethan McCormack
Jim originally contacted the Political Science department to share the internship opportunity with current majors, which lead to many emails about what he is doing and how our students might get involved with BallotPath. Ethan heard about the internship and ended up being exactly what Jim and BallotPath needed.
Jim says, “I assigned Ethan to work on Middlesex County, Massachusetts, which I knew would be difficult… the scale of working on Middlesex was incredibly challenging…. Ethan’s work has been nothing short of excellent, and we wouldn’t have been able to complete the work there without him.
We asked Jim to share a bit more about why current majors should consider interning and here is what he had to say:
This semester I’ve been working with interns from students at USC (3 students), UCLA (2 students), the University of Washington (6 students), Rutgers University (3 students) and the University of Oregon. Ethan McCormac has been the student from the University of Oregon and he’s been an amazing help.
What students who work on this project benefit from is a thorough understanding of the types of positions that people can run for, and the steps that it takes to get on the ballot. Students also are in contact with election administrators (Ethan has been in touch with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office) and sometimes have to craft and submit Freedom of Information Act requests. I think these are great experiences to go through and provide a learning opportunity that can help anyone that’s getting into politics. I’m happy to say that I’ve had several students go on to work on political campaigns, work in Congress as a professional paid staffer, and one of my former interns is now in his second year at Harvard Law School. This type of work is for students that can work independently, are driven, and truly care about more people running for office.
To be involved with this internship you have to genuinely want to see fresh faces in politics and believe that all citizens have equal rights to run for office. BallotPath focuses on breaking down the candidacy filing procedures for the most populated counties in the United States, which will be challenging and rewarding.
If you are an interested student, check out the internship position description here.
To Jim, the most rewarding part of his position is:
helping to build something that previously did not exist, and working towards a larger goal of increasing civic engagement. I noticed that there was plenty of attention and effort towards getting people to vote, but when I looked at my ballots I saw that 70% of the time positions were uncontested. In the last two elections that I voted in, there were 26 races and in only 8 of those races was there actually a choice, meaning more than one candidate for the position. The other 18 out of 26 races the person running was either unopposed, or worse, no one filed at all. I thought that was crazy and undemocratic.
This started a long journey of me working on BallotPath, getting funded by the Sunlight Foundation, and working with Portland State University and later UC Berkeley to build a prototype. I’ve gotten to meet some great Oregonians that were interested in helping civic engagement, and two of the biggest supporters and helpers have been Phil Keisling (former two term Oregon Secretary of State) and Governor Kate Brown when she was Secretary of State helped the project. With Governor Brown’s help, some paid internships, and a lot of work we were able to identify every single elected office in Oregon and the steps needed to get on the ballot.
When Jim isn’t cheering on the Duck football team he is likely playing soccer with his four year old son, walking his dog, or catching a movie. Jim and his wife (a librarian in Springfield) started a free monthly film screening at the Wildish Theatre downtown called, “SpringFilm”.
A New Yorker loyalist and all around avid reader, Jim often spends time at the Knight library when things get a little loud at home. He is enjoying teaching his son to read and write, swim, and grow up in Duck country. A ‘big factor” in Jim’s family decision to live here was the University of Oregon and all that a college community offers. He keeps an eye on all tech projects coming from the university and would like to see “more civic tech projects” on campus because he “feels there is so much opportunity and we have some great resources at the University of Oregon.”
Many PoliSci Ducks would agree and understand there is tremendous opportunity and need for civic technology to make our national and local governments more effective and our public more actively engaged with our political systems. A core tenant of BallotPath is “having access to the ballot is essential to the democratic system.”
Jim and BallotPath Project were recently featured in Washington Monthly
If you can’t beat ’em, run against ’em
… Case in point: Jim Cupples and the folks at the BallotPath Project are looking to improve what they call the “candidacy turnout” side of the equation. With an eye toward facilitating access, the group is creating a giant database containing info on local offices around the country and what it takes to run for them. Politically interested citizens will be able to enter their address into the site and pull up a list of all the elective positions available in their area—from school board member to parks & rec director to utility commissioner to justice of the peace—along with the requirements for getting on the ballot. Originally launched with money from the Sunlight Foundation, Cupples’s project was taken up by the engineers and developers at NationBuilder in January 2015. The goal is to have data for the nation’s 100 most populous counties ready to roll before the site’s planned launch in January.Who knows how much impact a project like this will have. I can think of a couple
dozenhundred very good reasons why decent, sensible people might not want to run for office. But at least this is a push in the direction of more, rather than less, engagement.
Read the full article HERE
If you are interested in learning more about BallotPath and the work being done with NationBuilder, please contact Jim Cupples at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you Jim and Ethan for the work you are doing and for taking the time to share it with your home department!