South Charlotte

Charlotte becomes test market for voting app

“I’ve always been much more interested in the work than the show,” Amy Chiou, a local political activist, said. “Politics is a really good fit for me because you have to motivate and inspire people, but you also have to do the work.”
“I’ve always been much more interested in the work than the show,” Amy Chiou, a local political activist, said. “Politics is a really good fit for me because you have to motivate and inspire people, but you also have to do the work.” KATYA LEZIN

Having worked in politics for almost a decade, Amy Chiou, 32, has been dismayed by low voter turnout and apathy on a local and national scale.

In August 2015, she decided to do something about it.

She left her job in property management for Lincoln Harris to devote herself full-time to her latest initiative, Ballot, which is an app that, she said, “makes voting easier.”

Modeled after online dating apps, Ballot asks users a series of targeted questions and then provides candidates to make selections on the ballot based on the answers provided. It is nonpartisan and free to voters.

“When I talk to people about why they don’t vote,” Chiou said, “the refrain over and over again is that they don’t have enough information. The sense is that it is better to be a non-voter than an ignorant voter.”

She added: “As party affiliation declines, the shortcut that busy voters rely on needed an alternative, and technology could be that.”

When Chiou was a little girl, she wanted to be the first female president of the United States. She even wrote an essay about what it would be like to live in the White House.

Born and raised in Plano, Texas, Chiou, 32, majored in government at the University of Texas. She then pursued a law degree from George Washington University Law School, graduating in 2008.

While at law school, Chiou put her own presidential aspirations aside and served as a research intern on the communications team for Hillary Clinton.

“As I got older,” Chiou said, “I realized it made more sense to help Hillary get there.”

She continued to work for Clinton’s campaign until Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination that summer.

Chiou had just moved to Charlotte and taken the N.C. Bar, having come to the Queen City because her boyfriend at the time was relocating to Charlotte. But she didn’t stay long.

After working on Clinton’s campaign, Chiou had checked a box on Emily’s List (a political action committee that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women) noting that she was willing to travel, so she was asked to do just that. She worked as the scheduler for a woman running for Congress in Buffalo from August until the election in November 2008.

Chiou then visited family in Texas and Taiwan. When she returned to Charlotte at the end of 2008, she reached out to Anthony Foxx, who had just announced his candidacy for mayor, and asked if he was hiring. Chiou served as his finance director until he was elected in November 2009.

“The recession was in full force,” Chiou said, “and the legal market was hit pretty badly.”

So Chiou did some consulting work as a facility planner for colleges and universities for six months. Just as she was at a crossroads about what to do next, it was announced that the Democratic National Convention would be held in Charlotte in 2012.

“The DNC is like the Super Bowl for anyone who is a political junkie,” Chiou said.

She served as the DNC liaison for Lincoln Harris (a property management and real estate development firm) on the Bank of America account, helping manage the impact of the convention of the bank’s tenants, employees and customers.

The convention was a lot of work (Chiou planned 11 fundraisers in four days, among other tasks) but it was also a confirmation that politics was a passion and a calling for her.

Following the convention, she stayed on with Lincoln Harris doing property management, but, she said, “I did politics on the side.”

In addition to working with individual politicians and campaigns (she helped Vi Lyles run for City Council in 2013 and has worked with Kay Hagan’s campaign), Chiou has directed her political passion towards increasing voter engagement and turnout across the board.

She currently runs We’re the Future, We Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aimed at increasing civic and political engagement at the local level.

“Our mission is to make people smarter about politics and policy so that we can make the city better,” Chiou said.

The initiative has attracted a lot of GenX folks but it is not generation-specific.

Chiou writes a weekly newsletter that includes a community calendar of civic events. She also hosts Shake Up Charlotte events, like a happy hour to meet the candidates and the recent Charlotte mayoral forum. She writes for the Charlotte Agenda (a local, digital media source) and is a frequent commentator on The Edge on WCCB.

Ballot launched in Charlotte with the current slate of local candidates on Oct. 1. Charlotte is serving as the test market, and Chiou and her team will make improvements for a better product, based on what works and doesn’t work with the Charlotte prototype, in 2016.

Chiou’s hope for the app is, she said, “to democratize democracy.” She wants to ensure “that anyone and everyone can participate in the process as intended.”

She hopes that her civic engagement, and in particular the Ballot app, will help people figure out when, where and how to vote.

“At the end of the day,” Chiou said, “voting is one of the most American things we can do and we don’t take advantage of it or take it seriously enough.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer: