Informing and generating interest in elections and voting

Photo by Flickr user Dean Terry.

David W. Nickerson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Below he writes on inspirations for 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

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

The current media environment complicates the problem of creating an informed electorate. For the people interested in politics, there has never been so much information about policy and politics readily available. A few swipes of a finger and a person can find policy statements, informed analysis, and hard data. By the same token, it has never been so easy for people disinterested in politics to avoid political news. Moving from three channels to hundreds not only gave TV viewers the opportunity to opt out of watching political news (see Markus Prior’s “Post-Broadcast Democracy”), but the need to compete for eyeballs has caused traditional outlets to offer less hard news coverage.  The result is that it is actually harder for people to become informed about politics because they have to make the conscious choice to do so.I have spent the past 15 years studying how to mobilize people to vote. The people who work to engage the electorate obviously care about elections a great deal.  When crafting messages to engage erstwhile voters, I often have to remind my collaborators—and myself—that the people who need encouragement to vote are not interested in politics. 

How can these trends be reversed and organizations help people overcome their inherent disinterest in politics?  Solutions are neither obvious nor easy – which is why the Knight News Challenge on Elections is so interesting.  Here is a broad typography of avenues to pursue that I hope will inspire someone to craft an ingenious way to address civic knowledge and participation.

Inculcate an interest in politics: People are not born with an interest in football. The interest has to be cultivated and affirmed. The imprinting may not be perfect (yes, there are pictures of my children at formative stages wearing Nebraska paraphernalia – sadly living in South Bend, Ind., has created lifelong Notre Dame fans), but it gets the ball rolling. Programs in schools and early childhood to engage them in politics are likely to have the biggest effect.

Make people want to consume political information: Information about policy, voting and elections is often viewed as boring or difficult to understand, so people choose not to consume the information. Presenting such news in an engaging manner may cause people to click when they would otherwise pass. Buzzfeed has mastered the art of getting people to click and many political news sites have adapted to this style of attracting an audience (e.g., “Five predictions about Obamacare that were dead wrong!” or “Three things the White House doesn’t want you to know about Obamacare”). While some of this “click bait” is vacuous, others have content and inform readers.  Similarly, where “Week in Review” on “Saturday Night Live” is largely content free, “The Daily Show” does a good job of exposing its audience to real news stories in the guise of fake news. Just as Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy have attempted to make the natural sciences accessible and entertaining, there is no reason why this could not be done with elections and voting.

Part of the genius of “School House Rocks” was that the songs were sufficiently catchy that children happily repeated the educational choruses (I’m curious as to the extent to which the public’s distaste for vetoes is due to anthropomorphizing Bill, in “I’m Just a Bill”). This entertainment as education is not limited solely to national elections.  The Oregon Bus Project conducted a several Candidates Gone Wild events where candidates for local office would show off talents and answer off-the-wall questions in front a live audience looking to be entertained. While far from the focus of the event, there is enough policy substance that audience members generally left more informed than when they arrived. The trick is to draw in viewers and readers who would otherwise pass on political content and leave them more informed.

Make it impossible to avoid political content: 6 p.m. will never again be the hour when the only thing on television is news – nor should it be.  However, the impulse to force policy and elections information on people is a potentially fruitful avenue to pursue.  Special interests use aggressive public awareness campaigns to attract attention to their causes and the same could be done for news. Clever signs with facts about the city budget could be plastered around the city. Flash mobs could choreograph songs describing foreign affairs. The beauty of some of these strategies is that the people watching the initial scenes or seeing the signs will be exposed to the content and may tell their friends about the event.  Which leads us to …

Create a norm of being a know-it-all: When Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet sought to study how voters consume campaign news, they discovered that most people received their elections news indirectly through people in their social network (see “The People’s Choice”). There is an army of people who are extremely knowledgeable about elections and voting and they could be used to inform people more broadly. Imagine a campaign, let’s call it “Share Five Facts,” successfully mobilized these people to share their knowledge with friends.  Such a campaign could spread information to people who would otherwise be watching cat videos.  The trick would be that people informed about elections and voting tend to interact with similarly informed people, so the organizers of “Share Five Facts” would need to make concentrated efforts to target the sharing at people who need the information.

I’m sure I am missing some broad categories, but these strike me as the major avenues to pursue in the effort to improve levels of elections and voting information among the electorate.  Successful attempts to engage those who do not care about such information are likely to be as much art as science and I am curious to see the variety of strategies proposed among the winners of the News Challenge on Elections.

 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.  

Related research by David Nickerson

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