How we can restore the joy of voting and increase citizen participation in elections

Above: Citizen University CEO Eric Liu at the Annual National Conference in Seattle March 18-19, 2016. Photo by  Alabastro Photography.

Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University, a national nonprofit that teaches and promotes powerful citizenship. Knight Foundation is supporting its Joy of Voting project with $125,000 in funding.

For much of American history, elections were surrounded by raucous and celebratory activity. Street theater, open-air debates, bonfires and festivals were a part of every election. Debate was passionate and creative. However, since the advent and spread of television, this longtime American tradition has atrophied, the couch replacing the public square, and elections losing the touch of the creative and the local.

With support from Knight Foundation, and partnerships with four outstanding organizations in four distinct communities across the country, Citizen University aims to bring back an active, participatory and joyful culture of voting.

The spirit of this project is experimental and action-oriented. Our co-hosts in Akron, Ohio, Miami, Philadelphia, and Wichita, Kansas, all communities where Knight invests, include a university institute, a youth engagement organization, a century-old civic institution, and a public radio station. With these partners—the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron, Engage Miami, the Committee of Seventy, and KMUW Wichita Public Radio—we’ll bring in more artists, activists, designers and organizers to ideate and imagine. Together, we will propose concrete projects to be implemented in local communities in advance of Election Day in November 2016.

Citizen University Annual National Conference in Seattle March 18-19, 2016. Photo by Alabastro Photography.

By partnering with such a wide array of organizations, we hope to gather data on what works best, create a space for collaborations and creativity, and to reflect the broad diversity of forms of American civic participation. From parades and street theater, to civic engagement apps and university rivalries, this project will combine the old and the new to reinvigorate a culture of voting in our four pilot cities.

The work of everything we do at Citizen University is about unlikely collaborations, and about democratizing an understanding of civic power. The Joy of Voting project emerges naturally out of our past work in creating new civic rituals that give a place for long-standing active citizens and those just beginning to engage in the civic arena to come together to learn and celebrate.

By the end of Election Day 2016, we will have seeded 20 different experiments across the country of what it can look like when citizens come together to creatively reimagine and reclaim the act of voting and the ritual of American elections. What would it take to bring back the 18th and 19th century culture of pageantry and participation? Simply doing it. With the support of Knight Foundation, we can’t wait to undertake this project, and reinvigorate an innovative, inclusive and joyful 21st century culture of voting.

Follow Eric Liu on Twitter @ericpliu.

To learn more about Citizen University, contact Ben Phillips via [email protected].