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Steve Ballmer: How Data Can Help Americans Vote in the Midterms

October 11, 2018, 11:00 AM UTC

Americans are hurtling toward a midterm election, consequential by any measure, and craving facts to inform their vote. But USAFacts’ polling reveals that Americans are frustrated by what we see as an inability to trust the vast amounts of information we receive. We are starving at a feast of untrusted information.

Three years ago, I set out with a small team of employees and economists to create a comprehensive database on how American tax dollars are raised and spent—and the impact government efforts are having. We created thousands of spreadsheets and a several-hundred-page PowerPoint deck. It helped me and my wife Connie think about how government was working—or not working—to help more children and families move out of poverty. We wanted to more effectively support those efforts with our philanthropy.

Soon, we put this government data online, and in a printed annual report and 10-K—modeled on the form public companies file each year with the Securities and Exchange Commission—and added graphics to make it all a bit more interesting. We called it USAFacts. We invited people to check it out and take a deep dive to inform their discussions and decisions. Some did. So we did a big, 2,500-person survey with The Harris Poll to find out more about what people wanted.

Last year, our first State of the Facts poll showed that more than three-quarters of Americans believe the information they receive about government is biased. Nine out of 10 see data as critical to believing this information, and almost as many prefer facts and figures to anecdotes.

This trend continued in this year’s poll. Fifty-two percent of Americans say they get information on candidates and issues from local TV news—making it America’s number one information source—but 48% of those individuals view that information as biased. And that was the source we tested with the least perceived bias. Cable news was the second most-used source (tied with national network news)—but nearly three-quarters of cable viewers consider it biased.

In a bit of a surprise, social media showed up toward the bottom of the list of news sources, with only 26% saying they use it for voting information. But a whopping 73% hold their noses at its perceived biased content.

Sixty-two percent of us are concerned information we are receiving about this upcoming election is influenced by a foreign government. Seventy-four percent worry that the news they consume is clickbait—stories or headlines manipulated to get us to click through or watch to drive ad revenue.

What’s to be done? On the narrow question of this election, USAFacts just launched a Voter Center—the first to have your congressional candidate positions next to charts and data on how the country is doing on that issue. The League of Women Voters and BallotReady also have great voter resources.

You may not trust me or USAFacts completely. That’s not a bad thing. It is far better to hear skepticism and frustration from data-hungry Americans actually looking for trusted sources, rather than watch them passively accept a situation in which facts don’t matter.

One final word of warning or encouragement to the candidates: Our poll shows that two-thirds of registered voters are more likely to vote for an unknown candidate if they use data to explain their positions. What if data, not dollars, determined the future of our democracy?

Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft, founder of USAFacts, and chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers.