A student from Berkeley Reads looks over the 2016 Easy Voter Guide. "This one is a lot better than the other one," he said. "It is simpler to understand."

A student from Berkeley Reads looks over the 2016 Easy Voter Guide. “This one is a lot better than the other one,” he said. “It is simpler to understand.”

Busting the apathy myth:  an origin story

The seminal project that launched Common Knowledge over 20 years ago was the “Key to Community Voter Involvement Project.” We gathered people who represented audiences least likely to vote—those with below average education and below average incomes—at library-based literacy programs around the San Francisco Bay Area. We asked this group to dig beneath the usual poll results, which show that people are “too busy” and “don’t like politics.” What did they think about getting people connected to civic issues?

Spoiler alert:  Diverse community members devised and implemented a program that doubled voting turnout among their peers.

How did this group of nonprofessionals debunk the apathy myth and change behavior?

1 – Get beneath the surface with open-hearted questions

The Voter Involvement Project participants did not start by asking “Why don’t you vote?”  This kind of question forces people to come up with a justification. It yields predictable, partially true but superficial pat answers, such as: “I’m too busy,” and “I don’t like politics.”

Instead, the adult students asked their peers a different kind of question:  “What do you care about in your community?” No matter how disaffected or disenfranchised a respondent was, he or she cared about something in their community. This conversation created a safe space to explore the disconnect between what they cared about and the voting process.

This is what the Key to Community Voter Involvement Project discovered:

Increase Voter Turnout table

This research also revealed “performance anxiety” across all voter types, including those with more education.

First-Time Voters

  • Many do not have literacy skills to read the official Voter Information Guide or Sample Ballot (40% of California adults struggle with literacy skills)
  • They feel uncertain about what will happen at the polling place
  • Voting feels like taking a test and is particularly stressful for people with limited literacy skills

More Experienced Voters

  • Wait until the night before to “cram”
  • Feel they can’t fulfill their “duty” to be well-informed on all the races

2 – Iterative user-based design

These audiences were asked what they wanted to help them get ready to vote. Both new and experienced voters asked for more user-friendly, non-partisan information. New voters also asked for:

  • Reasons why to vote, from a peer perspective
  • Hands-on training about how to vote
  • Basic information about what they are voting on: choosing a party, types of elected officials, job descriptions, etc.

One of the critical insights from this research was that many first-time voters thought going to vote would be like taking a driver’s license exam at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Their image of voting was an official test where they would have to answer all of the questions and they could not “cheat” by asking for help. Even experienced voters indicated feeling that they “had” to vote on everything and would end up skipping the election if they could not get adequately prepared on everything in the sample ballot.

Of course, the reality is that people can choose to vote on as many or as few items as they like. They can take their completed Sample Ballot in with them and/or bring someone to help them vote. Awareness of this ability to customize the voting process significantly reduces the performance anxiety expressed by both new and experienced voters.

ALLI Workshop Whiteboard

Potential voters prioritize the issues they care about.

3 – Peer developed and peer delivered

The core philosophy of the Key to Community project was to enlist members of the target audience of less likely voters not only as research respondents who could identify barriers, but also as partners in designing and delivering the communications and materials that would be motivating for their peers. The adult students’ work and insights evolved into a three-pronged approach to help disenfranchised Californians overcome their resistance to voting:

  • Peer-led issues discussions provided the disenfranchised audiences with a chance to be heard and respected. Peer-led dialogues on topics that they selected (not the topics selected for them by partisan campaigns, or even by well meaning organizers), helped them discover their own connection to the issues.
  • Peer-led interactive voting workshops, delivered in a nonjudgmental, friendly and encouraging manner, demystified and changed perceptions about the voting process.
  • Peer-edited Easy Voter Guides created access to non-partisan voting information about state candidates and propositions in a 16-page guide (and later via www.easyvoter.org and now on Voter’s Edge).

As compulsive tinkerers, we kept making enhancements and additions to the model each election cycle, while concurrently building a team of peer discussion leaders and workshop leaders through library-based literacy programs around the state. We studied the journey lines of nonvoters and occasional voters and realized that for some people, voting was not going to be their first civic action. They needed to have some other kind of positive interaction with the “civic system” before feeling like voting was worthwhile, which spawned another series of workshops (How to Be Heard and Make a Difference).



For those who want to learn about the evidence, a grant from the Kettering Foundation was obtained for a qualitative and quantitative study of this three-part voter involvement program. Among adult school and “Basic Ed” community college students aged 18 to 24, voter turnout increased from 35–36% (the expected percentage) to over 70% (see https://www.literacyworks.org/ for the full report). Parts of this breakthrough model have been incorporated into national civic education standards and aspects of the program have been widely disseminated across California in multiple languages. With thanks to the California State Library and the Kettering Foundation for their support, this project has inspired many other examples of “community driven design” at Common Knowledge.

At Common Knowledge, we turned over the Easy Voter Guide portion of the project to the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund several years ago. We deeply appreciate their keeping this piece alive and that they invite us to conduct the community-driven design of the Easy Voter Guide proposition summaries each statewide election. (See related blog about the process we use to blend accessible language and legal accuracy). This lets us stay in touch with new voters and new citizens who keep us close to the community’s perspective.

So what has changed since we first prototyped and tested the community-driven design approach to voter engagement in California?

For the better:

  • More use of vote by mail, which reduces anxiety and makes it easier to get help
  • A greater number of online resources of all kinds

Not necessarily better:

  • Funding is available for nonpartisan voter information, but harder to come by for  community-led discussions on the issues that residents choose
  • We are still seeing studies that start with the surface answers about why people don’t vote and many projects take the “not enough time” answer too literally; convenience is important, but it doesn’t get very far without personal relevance

Three Tips

There is one week to go in this crazy election.  Trying to get more people to vote?  Share these three tips:

  1. Be clear that you don’t have to vote on everything—choose the things you care about
  2. Make it social—talk it through with people
  3. Get nonpartisan sources that use clear language like the Easy Voter Guide and Voter’s Edge.

And we’d be delighted to tell you about the other 20 years of community-driven design projects inspired by these amazing community leaders at the library-based literacy programs in California.