Last winter, Stamps professor Stephanie Rowden came across a statistic about voter participation in the 2014 midterm election that took her by surprise — just 14% of eligible U-M voters participated. "I was stunned by the gap between my sense of how much students want to use their voice about issues they care about and how many were getting to the ballot box."
Looking ahead to the 2016 midterms, she wondered how our art and design students could enliven voting on campus. "Could we re-brand the experience with a mix of humor, playfulness, creative problem solving, and genuinely useful information tailored to new voters? "
Stephanie invited colleague Hannah Smotrich to join on the project, with her experience teaching a previous voting-related visual communications class. Together they developed a framework for a class called Voting is Sexy that they described to students as "serious fun." Leveraging the skills of culture-making and aesthetic persuasion unique to artists and designers, students formed a creative team tasked with creating a high-energy, non-partisan, and peer-to-peer voter registration and participation campaign for the 2018 Midterm Elections.
Given the tight schedule leading up to November 6th, the complexity of the voting process and the critical need for materials to be accurate, the class kicked off in the spring with a one-day workshop and was structured as more of a collaborative research project between faculty and students than a typical class.
Additionally, the class collaborated with Professor Andy Kirshner and students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who produced a suite of videos — distributed via social media and on the big screen at the Michigan Theater prior to Penny Stamps Speaker Series talks — that leveraged playful innuendo and humor to captivate college audiences to communicate essential information about voter registration, absentee ballots, and the importance of making a plan for election day.
In perhaps one of the most grassroots undertakings, the class received voter registration training and went to nearly every first year class at Stamps to help register students using TurboVote. In these sessions, Voting is Sexy students provided informed guidance through the murkier terrain that most first-time voters away at college face: registering to vote while away from home. Reflecting on the experience of registering students in the classroom, Smotrich notes: “Faculty, who had been reiterating the importance of voter registration to their students, were surprised at the number of hands that shot up when our students came in and asked how many people still needed to get registered. This peer-to-peer engagement was important.” Overall, in both class visits and at pop-up events, the Voting is Sexy team registered nearly 100 voters.
“We assumed that first year students would need the most support around voter registration, but we learned throughout the process that upperclassmen needed support in this area too,” said Gabriella Pascual (BA ‘20). “Next time, we’ll make sure to target them in our efforts as well.”
In addition to the registration efforts, Voting is Sexy students also hosted an “after hours” pizza/ballot research session. “We discovered that many college students don’t know some of the more logistical things about absentee voting,” said Manda Villarreal (BFA ‘20). “For example, people need to know where they can get stamps on campus, since mailing things isn’t something college students do very often.” As a result the team started another initiative with the school’s support called 'Stamps for Stamps': postage stamps to mail registration applications and absentee ballots were made available free of charge.
In partnership with other voter participation efforts across campus, the Voting is Sexy team played an integral role in creating an active culture of campus voters that drew national attention, including a Wolverine “shout-out” in Teen Vogue. The yield from these efforts was startingly successful. According to preliminary data, precincts on the University of Michigan campus were 3.25x higher in the 2018 Midterm elections than in 2014. Turnout for other precincts in Ann Arbor were 1.5x higher than in 2014.
Once the Midterm Elections had passed, Voting is Sexy faculty and students were able to conduct a thorough campaign post-mortem, evaluating what worked, what didn’t, and what they’d like to do differently next time. Looking ahead, Rowden says “We are interested in continuing this research, and plan to design a toolkit that can be used in other schools and colleges at the University of Michigan and nationwide.”
“One of the biggest takeaways that I wasn’t expecting was seeing the importance of non-partisan work,” reflects Alexa Gordon (BFA, ‘18). “I was kind of dreading that it was non-partisan because I have my own strong convictions, but [being non-partisan] was a really positive aspect of the class. We didn't have to focus on political views in order to draw interest. It could just be about the excitement of getting involved and participating—it’s about community and there’s something there that’s important too. Voting itself could be unifying.”