The two of us spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase voter turnout. As the founder of SeePolitical, a nonprofit organization dedicated to demystifying ballot propositions and clarifying the electoral process, and an election law professor and the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, we take civic engagement seriously.
To say that voter participation rates in California are low is akin to saying the state might have a water problem. Less than half of registered voters participated in California’s elections in 2014. This matters because voters pick representatives for all of us, but they do not represent all of us. Those who vote are on average older, whiter and wealthier than the average Californian. Our collective disinterest relinquishes an enormous amount of power to a “voter class.”
There are numerous proposals to increase voter turnout: Consolidating elections, extending voting periods, allowing same-day voter registration and even tempting voters with the chance of winning a cash prize. Many of these proposals could help, but there is another approach worth exploring.
In the most recent municipal elections on April 12 in Culver City in Southern California something unexpected happened. Voters turned out in record numbers. This participation rate cannot be explained by a particularly competitive race between candidates or a controversial ballot measure.
Culver City attempted something totally new by creating a “voting mascot” to connect with its residents. SeePolitical worked with the city clerk and his staff to design the mascot, “Birdee,” and produce two animated videos in English and Spanish explaining how to register to vote and when Election Day takes place.
City officials and community groups took complete ownership of Birdee, and the new voting mascot appeared in public spaces around town, on street banners, mail-in ballots, sample ballots and other voter information materials.
SeePolitical and Culver City used the mascot to brand not a campaign, but the election itself. While correlation and causation are different, this is a project worth implementing on a larger scale.
In the era of short attention spans, information overload and voter apathy, utilizing mascots, animated videos and other modern informational design elements can help us reach voters and educate the public about our democratic process in new and exciting ways.
It’s hard to miss that the presidential primary election season is coming to a close and the general election season is opening. But we should remember that there are many down-ballot races that voters opt out of. Voters are largely unaware of ballot measures and their impacts, and may not understand what a particular state or local officeholder actually does. Some basic education could help empower voters to weigh in on all of the choices they face on the ballot, and that education can be packaged, at least in part, in the form of more effective election branding and engaging content.
SeePolitical’s success in Culver City highlights the importance of creating awareness among voters and providing for some basic education on the issues. And why not make it fun too?
Nate Kaplan is founder and executive director of SeePolitical. Contact him at Nate@SeePolitical.com. Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, the president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, and a board member of SeePolitical. Contact her at Jessica.Levinson@lls.edu.