Today, democracy is under siege, so nothing—especially the right to vote—is as simple as we are led to believe. Roadblocks to free access are becoming as frequent as potholes. This is a good reason why the nonpartisan Creative Campus Voting Project at University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design, co-lead by Associate Professors Hannah Smotrich and Stephanie Rowden, is so worthy of our attention. It serves as a course model for other schools (remember, whatever happens on and after Nov. 8, the presidential election in just two years away). With the midterms less than three weeks away, I interviewed Smotrich about the project and one element of in particular, The Ballot Wayfinder—an interactive installation to help students navigate the issues.
You and your colleague been working together on the nonpartisan Creative Campus Voting Project. Please tell me how it evolved.
We started thinking about this topic in 2017 as we approached the midterms. The participation rate on campus in the previous midterm election was low—which was surprising given our perception of student interest.
There seemed to be a gap between intent (registration rates) and action (voting rates) and we were curious to see if art and design could help. In fall 2018, we co-taught a class, but quickly discovered that the complexity of the creative challenge was a rich topic suited for ongoing research.
We are passionate about helping students develop the desire and confidence to participate in our democracy and are convinced that art and design are uniquely situated to do this work. In 2020, we developed three projects. The first two, a digital party package and weekly micro-newsletter, were fun, nonpartisan tools to demystify the voting process for students. The third, and most impactful, was U-M’s first campus voting hub in our centrally located art museum. Over six weeks, 5,412 voters registered and 8,501 ballots were collected.
Our 2022 work builds on that success. We have designed and produced two campus election hubs, one of which includes an immersive “Ballot Wayfinder” installation, and recruited and trained a cohort of peer mentors, called the UMich Votes Fellows.
One of the exciting things about Michigan is that our state election laws now allow for no-excuse absentee voting, starting 40 days before an election. Local city clerks who staff these on-campus voting hubs make it possible for students to register, request their absentee ballot and vote, all in one stop—well before Nov. 8.
Has your project gone into the world outside of academia, to the masters of the voting system?
Since 2020, we’ve been working in close partnership with local government to make these sites possible. Administering elections in a college town can be challenging given the tendency of students to procrastinate. So engaging in the collaboration to educate students and encourage earlier participation benefits our City Clerk, Jackie Beaudry, as well. We have all learned so much from the partnership! She took a leap of faith to work with us in this highly unconventional way and it has helped all of us to reimagine civic participation.
What have you discovered about voting irregularities, and how you can repair the system, if at all?
It’s interesting to realize that even where the system is “working,” the voting process is full of decision points and potential confusion. Just think of the new student voter and many questions they need to think through: Do I vote with my permanent or school address? (By law, students can choose either location.) How should I register? Online? By mail? In person? Should I vote in person or absentee? And, of course, the rules and deadlines are different in every state! Keep in mind, this is before a student even gets to all the decisions to be made on the ballot!
What has been your research goal and investigative methodology?
Our research goal is to explore how art and design can make the student voting experience clear, calm and welcoming, and delightful.
All of our work is guided by the question: How can we design an experience for students that gives them a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their ability to navigate the process? There is compelling evidence in the literature that a positive voting experience at a young age leads to a lifetime of civic participation and the development of an identity as a voter.
The work started with reading the literature on campus voters in both political science and behavioral science. Those frameworks created a starting point for our work. From there, our ability to develop and prototype ideas with students and student research assistants has given us invaluable insights and direction as we iterate.
Did you find among your students optimism or skepticism in the process?
There’s always a mix of attitudes, but overall we find that students want to participate. We had a 78% voting rate on our campus in 2020. More than optimism vs. skepticism, what we hear from our students is about their anxiety. Students see voting as an adult rite of passage that they are eager to complete but repeatedly describe the fear they feel about “doing it wrong.” To them, the ballot can feel like a standardized test.
Have you heard positive, negative or mixed responses?
So far so good! We’re hearing that students appreciate a welcoming, calm, clear space where their questions can be answered directly.