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