2014 Wharton graduate Sean Danowski and 2014 Penn Law graduate Dafan Zhang recently launched VOHTE — a mobile-friendly website that will act as a resource for Pennsylvania voters looking to learn more about candidates in their district.
Zhang said he came up with the idea for VOHTE after running for State House in 2014 while simultaneously studying at Penn Law. Zhang, who said he did not have a large campaign fund, ended up losing the election, and said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvania that he saw his inability to reach voters as a systematic problem.
"We should have a central place, a platform where money has as little influence as possible,” Zhang said. "Everybody who wants to vote or is interested in the electoral process can learn about candidates on an equal footing."
Zhang's new website, which he launched with his Penn grad school friend Danowski, is a response to his own personal experience running for office. VOHTE users can enter their home address and access all of the candidates on their ballot, as well as non-biased information on each candidate and candidate platforms.
“A point of frustration that I’ve had with voting is walking into the box and not knowing who the candidates are for local elections," Danowski said. “We have a vision of this being the one-stop-shop for anyone who is looking to get information about candidates at any level, from federal all the way down to local and municipal races."
Zhang, who earned an undergraduate degree in computer science from Westchester University, began coding the VOHTE website in February 2018 and officially launched the project at the beginning of this month. He said he created the website for the same reason he ran for state house — "to do something good for my community."
New Pennsylvanian redistricting offered unique challenges in the creation of VOHTE, Zhang said, but he added that he has accommodated the website to reflect recent changes made to the PA Congressional District map.
Zhang's vision is for VOHTE to navigate as a social media platform for voters to interact with candidates through a nontraditional and cost-effective advertising avenue, he said. The team added that while this service is only available in PA right now, they hope to have all 50 states available on the platform by the midterm election this November.
Although he thought VOHTE was a good resource, Penn political science professor Marc Meredith said that the users a website like this will attract will most likely already be well informed on the candidates.
“The biggest issue we face with [a] service like this, is that the types of people who seek out trying to find information through it are the people who least need it,” Meredith said, adding that he believes the service will be more impactful in primary elections rather than general elections.
“Where I would expect this would have the most impact is at the primary stage, because once we’re in the general election stage party ID usually trumps everything else."
As the primaries draw even closer, the VOHTE team remains optimistic about the potential for this project.
"[Candidates] need a better avenue to connect with voters," Zhang said. "We need a new place for people to learn about the process."