How can midterm voting be rebranded so that college students find it irresistible?
This question was the spark for the UM Stamps School of Art & Design studio we’re co-teaching this semester. The course description explained to students: You’re going to educate, entertain, motivate, inspire and enliven your peers all the way to the ballot box on November 6, 2018. Our students came with a range of skills across the realms of Art & Design and beyond; the only prerequisite for taking the class was an interview with us to explain why the student wanted in — and a passion for civic engagement.
Playful speech bubbles photo opps at our pop-up events encourage students to celebrate and identify as a voters.
Another guiding question for the class was what can Art & Design offer that would be different from voter participation campaigns coming from other parts of the University? We were particularly interested in how our students might engage a sense of creative play while making content about voter registration and voting not only more compelling but also more understandable to their peers. We described the framework to students as ‘serious fun.’
Partnerships across campus were key. Our students felt connected to the larger efforts around voter participation and were able to see they could contribute an unexpected, creative approach.
There were four key underlying premises of the Voting is Sexy class/campaign:
As faculty and students in a public institution we are legally bound — and also philosophically committed — to be non-partisan.
Based on behavioral science insights
We drew on a paper from Ideas42 called ‘Graduating Students into Voters’ (DJ Neri, Jess Leifer, and Anthony Barrows) which details key design principles for encouraging college-age voter participation. These include:
— Make voting and civic engagement visible, positive and social
— Reduce uncertainty about the registration process and voting experience
Our students’ audience is their peers.
Our approach is collaborative on multiple levels:
- Within our class, students and faculty work in a variety of teams based on format (infographics, social media, pop-up events) and content (absentee voting, understanding the ballot, the voter experience).
- Within the Stamps School, the school leadership supported a range of registration and voter education initiatives throughout classes, in the halls and as part of our weekly speakers series.
- We collaborate with faculty and students in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance to produce a series of videos as part of the creative campaign.
- Across campus, we partner with the U-M Big Ten Voter Challenge, the Ginsberg Center, UMMA, U-M Social Media, and others on events and cross-sharing of social media content.
- In the city, we worked with the CivCity/Ann Arbor Votes project as a non-partisan resource, and as a partner in sharing our media content with the wider community.
Students who were less inclined to be photographed offer their voices via notes.
Our class activities and projects have ranged from pop-up events with photo opps at the art museum and other public spaces on campus, to registration tabling and in-class presentations (with a printer and stamps at the ready!), social media content, infographics on the walls of our school and handouts for large public lectures — and of course swag, including buttons, temporary tattoos and t-shirts.
This post is being written 5 days out from Election Day, amidst a flurry of still-very-much-in-process projects. The semester has been a whirlwind and there has been lots of learning for all of us. We look forward to having time as a class after Nov 6 to reflect more fully and define our key takeaways. As faculty, we plan to identify best practices and iterate a Voting is Sexy 2.0 toolkit — for ourselves and anyone interested in teaching a class along these lines. We’d love to compare notes with others who have taught or are interested in teaching similar classes.
Voting is Sexy had a consistent presence at the weekly Stamps Speaker Series in downtown Ann Arbor; Voting is Sexy video shorts preceded the speaker and students were available in the theater lobby before and after the lecture to spread swag, information and answer questions.
We asked our students to add a few thoughts, so we will end with some of their voices:
“I have loved being a resource for my peers!”
“I have loved when people are pleasantly surprised that [voting] is not as difficult as it seems.”
“I personally feel more motivated to engage with local elections and politics on a larger scale.”
“I have loved how impactful this class has been to my peers outside of it.”
“I have loved the high levels of student ownership in the projects, platforms and initiatives we’ve pursued.”
“I have loved having real world experiences and seeing the work I do have a direct impact on others.”
Our students spent a considerable amount of time clarifying information and finding ways to share it with their peers in our building and online.
Voting is Sexy students and faculty model some swag.
Stephanie Rowden and Hannah Smotrich are both Associate Professors at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design. Stephanie is a sound artist who works primarily in radio and podcasts and Hannah is a visual communication designer. We have had the privilege to collaborate on numerous classes and research projects. We thrive on the alchemy of our completely different skill sets and somehow manage to make each new venture more complex, challenging — and rewarding.