Will knowing how the public square works motivate voters to participate in elections?

The ‘founding fathers’ in bronze at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Jessica Mahone is a graduate research fellow at The Democracy Fund. Below she writes about the Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question: How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best nonpartisan ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at Related links

Informing and generating interest in elections and voting” by David Nickerson on Knight Blog, 3/12/2015

Why we care about elections” by John Bracken on Knight Blog, 03/10/15

Taking civic participation from the voting booth to the streets” by Seamus Kraft on Knight blog, 03/09/15

Knight News Challenge: Elections Mixtape” by Knight Foundation

Towards empathetic disruption: Civic tech and doing what works” by John Bracken and Lucas Hernandez on Knight blog, 03/04/15

Democracy Works launches new voter tool, expands programs” by Seth Flaxman on Knight blog, 03/04/15

Balancing technology risks and benefits in elections” by Jeremy Epstein on Knight blog, 03/02/15

To improve civic participation we need transparency” by Chris Gates on Knight blog, 02/26/15

“Civic engagement essential to strengthening democracy” by Kelly Born on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge on Elections opens for ideas” by Chris Barr and Shazna Nessa on Knight blog, 02/25/15

Knight News Challenge to focus on Elections” on Knight blog, 02/12/15

Political participation in the U.S. is often reduced to Americans’ engagement in federal campaigns. During campaigns, political observers combine available data and anecdotes to speculate on whether a candidate has the ground, financial, and likely-voter support to win the White House or a given congressional seat. After Election Day, many of the same pundits lament low voter participation rates, as in the 2014 midterms when turnout was at its lowest since WWII.

Rarely do these conversations meaningfully consider what voters’ participation in campaigns and at the ballot box say about Americans’ broader civic engagement — particularly when it comes to the down-ticket elections and ballot issues that aren’t top of mind or of news cycles but actually make up the majority of questions on most ballots.

This, in part, is why the Democracy Fund recently joined with Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Rita Allen Foundation on a $3 million challenge to identify how we can better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during, and after elections.

The voter participation lag for state and local elections, particularly in off-cycle and midterm years, is typically well behind federal elections. In recent years, local turnout in many locations has been falling even further behind, plummeting to a low of approximately 18 percent in 2009 with an average turnout rate near 26 percent between 1996 – 2011. This is far below even the already low 35.9 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots for federal candidates in November.

At the same time we have seen declines in voting in local races, state and local journalism has also suffered. Local newspapers have shut down and the number of reporters devoted to state reporting has declined by 35 percent since 2003. The result is a local news environment trying to do more with less and in need of new tools to inform and engage voters at the local level. In this situation, citizens lack the information to make critical decisions about local and state issues.

While many factors may account for any voter’s decision to participate in a particular election, confidence in one’s knowledge and ability to influence our governing institutions and public squares are important factors. Fundamental to this knowledge is the need for innovative tools that make it easier for the public to access and use a huge range of information, from voter registration deadlines to in-depth reporting on urgent issues. The types of information that voters would find useful are myriad, and so are the platforms and projects that reporters, election officials, and academics, among others, could use to creatively deliver that information in ways that energize ongoing participation.

As the  News Challenge brief states: “This contest is open to anyone, from journalists, students, civic technologists, and academics, to news organizations, businesses, nonprofits, governments and individuals. In addition to the projects that better inform voters and streamline the voting process, we hope to find some ideas that will increase civic participation beyond Election Day. We see democratic engagement as more than just the act of voting. It should be embedded in every part of civic life, extending before and after an election.”

The Democracy Fund seeks out organizations and partners that are working to ensure our political systems are responsive to the needs of the American public. It’s a complicated and long-term challenge that requires collaborations like this one, through which we hope to see innovative ideas that cross the media, technology and election administration fields in ways that could give voters the tools and information they need to engage on Election Day and beyond.

Knight Foundation is partnering with the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation on Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best nonpartisan ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at by 5 p.m. ET March 19. Winners will be announced in June.   

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