After graduating in May with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and an emphasis in Arabic from the University of Utah, Avisha Sab spent two months creating the informative website Voter Cafe.
“The idea for Voter Cafe came about after countless hours of perusing nonprofit organizations, looking for a job opportunity after graduation,” said Sab. “Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, I wasn’t able to find a viable work opportunity.”
Still on the hunt for a job, Sab stumbled across the website OpenSecrets.org, an organization that tracks the money that is spent in United States politics. Sab decided to form her own website that would give voters easier access to this information.
“After discovering their databases, I grew intrigued by the idea of a website where voters can find their candidates and learn about their campaign finances,” Sab said.
OpenSecrets.org, founded in 1983, published its findings in various books and reports. The website officially launched in 1996. The organization now features profiles of campaign contributors, a look into politicians and their elections, information about influence and lobbying, news articles and analyses of campaign spending.
In 2013, OpenSecrets won the Society of Professional Journalists’ award for public service in online journalism.
“While this information is available,” said Sab, “It requires a bit of work to get access to it. Voter Cafe was an attempt to condense a multi-step process into a one-stop destination. I wanted to make OpenSecrets’ information easily accessible to the average voter.”
Other sources that Voter Cafe utilizes include ProPublica, U.S. Census Bureau, Wikipedia and whoismyrepresentative.com.
Born and raised in Tehran, the capital of Iran, Sab was exposed to politics early on and quickly developed a passion for it.
“[Iran is] a place where you can’t ride a taxi without being audience to a political rant by the driver or a passenger,” she said, “Living under an oppressive regime has made Iranians very much consumed by politics on a quotidian basis, and you will find us talking about it at every social gathering.”
Sab and her family are members of the Iranian Baha’i community. Baha’i is the largest non-Muslim religious minority with nearly 300,000 Baha’i people estimated to live in Iran by Baha’i World News Service. Baha’i World News Service estimates that there are more than five million Baha’is worldwide. Members of this religious community are barred by the Iranian government from holding government jobs and are unable to attend Iran’s universities.
One of the core beliefs of Baha’is is the importance of education. “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom,” says the Baha’i religious text, the Tablets of Baha’u’llah, Lawh-i-Maqsud.
Persecuted by the Iranian government, the Sab family found religious asylum in the U.S. as refugees in 2011 and relocated to join their family members in Utah.
“The main reason for our migration was our inability to seek a higher education [in Iran],” said Avisha Sab.
As a non-citizen, Sab herself is unable to vote in any U.S. election.
“Although I am not legally an American, I do identify as one to a large extent, and as someone who lives in the U.S. and plans to stay here, I am every day affected by the political decisions made in this country.”
According to Sab, U.S. elections should gain the attention of not only Americans, but people all around the world. “Even for those who don’t live in the U.S., the fact of the matter is that American politics permeate throughout the world due to America’s standing as the world’s superpower. Decisions made domestically in the U.S. can easily affect my old grandmother in Tehran. This fact makes American politics important to pretty much everyone in this world.”
It isn’t simply a matter of voting, it’s a matter of caring.
“I think caring is the precursor to voting,” she said, “And if we talked more about why we should care rather than why we should vote, more people would vote from the sheer fact of caring about the world they live in.”
On Voter Cafe, site visitors have the options of exploring by address to find their own House and Senate candidates or to explore by a candidate’s name. At the bottom of the home page is a quick link to register to vote through vote.gov as well as a few words: “This might be news to many of us, but elected representatives tend to be loyal to the policy position that got them elected in the first place. In other words, representatives tend to be loyal to their constituent’s choices. By voting, you make your choices heard.”
After a user enters their address, their house candidates immediately pop up. To the left a site visitor will see the candidates’ contact information and part of the current House Representative and Senate Representatives. On the candidate tiles, there is more information about what a candidate is running for, who the incumbent and challenger candidates are, quick links to websites and an icon demonstrating political party affiliations.
Users can click on any candidate for in-depth information. This is where the top campaign contributors and top contributing industries are listed. There, you can choose to sort donors by name, total contribution amounts, individual contribution amounts or Political Action Committee (PAC) contribution amounts.
On the left-hand side of the site is the same information that appeared in the preview along with a financial summary and personal details if available. The same information is available for Senate candidates.
“Today’s dominant political parties support vastly different policies and your choice can impact you and your community’s life in very important ways and on many important issues like health, education, work, national security and immigration,” reads a statement from Voter Cafe.
The site was created to inform voters of where campaign funds are coming from without swaying voters one way or the other.
“Voter Cafe is based on a philosophy that doesn’t seek to persuade people to behave in a specific way. It’s not an activist platform looking to convince you to vote democrat or republican. It’s simply meant to give voters an extra resource they can use to make their own decisions, decisions informed by unbiased and factual information which seems to be a rarer thing in these times of post-truth politics,” Sab said.
Sab sees funding as an important part of elections that gives voters a look at what could motivate candidates in the future.
“I think there is this pervasive notion that campaign donations influence the way a federal representative votes after getting elected. The fact that running for elections keeps getting more and more expensive seems to be a source of concern for those who are skeptical of where an elective’s loyalty might lie,” Sab said.
According to OpenSecrets.org, from the average House seat to a Senate seat is a cost of millions. From understanding potential candidate motives voters can predict how officials would act in office.
“It is possible that electives choose donor interests over those of their constituents for fear of not receiving those big donations in the next cycle, and therefore having a lower chance of re-election. Knowing the sources of a campaign’s finances can help voters make informed decisions accordingly,” Sab said.
The site is anything but done growing. Sab does not want to stop at easy access to viewing funds. “My hope is to turn Voter Cafe into a destination for in-depth candidate information, not just financial information, but others like ideological stances, voting history, media presence, etc. Currently, no platform exists where you can use your address and find your candidates and all of that information in a reliable way.”
To Sab, the strange thing is that this job has been left up to the people. “I think this should have been done a long time ago by the federal government itself, but I think it’s something that can also be done through the work of interested and caring citizens.”
So far, Sab has worked on the website all on her own. Now, Voter Cafe has turned into a volunteer-based project. Using the web-based hosting service GitHub, Sab gives other web developers a chance to enhance or expand on her code. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that others will help me make this a bigger and better resource.”
People who wish to contribute can get involved by emailing [email protected]
Sab believes that however someone votes, they should strive to be informed. “Voting is, in essence, a way of decentralizing power, and from what we’ve learned historically, decentralized power seems to be the most stable way of organizing ourselves politically… voting is a way to incorporate diverse and varying views that might have some important merit. When we view politics in this way, disagreement is no longer a source of animosity but instead the vital factor that makes political decision-making more beneficial as a whole.”
With others taking over, Sab will be taking a break from the project to work on law school applications. She hopes to begin studying law in fall of 2019.
Voter Cafe can be found at www.voter.cafe.