October 21, 2020
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Applying the principles of design to motivate first-time voters to cast a ballot

A Stanford designer developed a design-based approach to help first-time voters navigate the ambiguity of election season. Here are a few lessons from that work.

Among the voting age population in the United States, the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. In 2016, less than half of young adults between 18 and 29 voted in the presidential election, while nearly three-quarters of adults over 65 cast a ballot. But in a country fractured by division and beset by misinformation, it’s easy for a voter of any age to feel frustrated.

How do we ensure that first-time voters–especially those who have just turned 18–are empowered to take one of the most important steps in civic engagement?

It might sound unexpected, but a good place to start is by applying the principles of design.

That’s how a team of educators and designers at Stanford developed Vote by Design, a nonpartisan digital curriculum aimed at empowering first-time voters. Led by Stanford University Hasso Plattner Institute of Design’s Lisa Kay Solomon, the initiative uses the principles of design to engage Gen Z voters.

“We were curious,” said Solomon. “Could design—a practice that allows us to navigate ambiguity, learn from others, give form to ideas, experiment, and learn along the way—help first-time voters find agency in a system that frankly, was feeling more and more out of control?”

Vote by Design started in 2019 as a pop-up class to create new content and fresh ways of engaging students. Since then, Solomon, in partnership with the San Francisco documentary studio Citizen Film, has been testing lessons and capturing the student experience with cohorts from around the country. To date, thousands of young voters, and soon-to-be 18-year-olds, from across the country have participated in this unique and immersive curriculum.

Solomon and Citizen Film co-founder Sam Ball recently presented some of their insights from working with students at an event hosted by the Commonwealth Club, a historic civic engagement forum also based in the Bay Area.

Here are just a few of their lessons of how to apply the principles of design to motivate voters to take action.

1. Start by reframing the problem.

“One of the things that design offers is a practice of asking a different question, of reframing,” said Solomon.

Based on low young-voter turnout, you could conclude that young voters are apathetic–that they don’t care. But Solomon says that’s not necessarily the case.

“Young voters care a lot, but they are confused,” said Solomon. “They haven’t had the practice to think about themselves as voters, which, turns out, is a very different mindset than thinking of themselves as students.”

Many first-time voters approach an election thinking they need to know everything about the policies they care about. They feel unqualified.

To invite students to think like a voter, ask them what makes a great leader. Ask them what kind of leaders they want to represent them. Solomon said it will help give voters the ability to look more holistically about who it is that they’re voting for.

“Students see themselves as active participants,” she said. “They can actually be proactive in either asking different questions or understanding what it is they need to be focused on in order to participate.”

2. Take the time to define what you’re trying to solve for.

Here’s a powerful exercise for first-time and long-time voters alike: act like a hiring manager. Start by reviewing the president’s job description, as laid out in the U.S. Constitution.

By defining the very core role of the job, less experienced voters will recognize that they too have opinions on who should be “hired” for the job of president. Some of the responses from the teens at the event, when asked what qualities they would like to see in a president, included: empathy, resilience, flexibility and adaptability, and someone who is a strong communicator.

“We’re infusing their sense of growth, of being able to voice their opinions,” said Solomon. “It’s been extraordinary what we’ve heard [from students]. We hear them say: I used to think I was unqualified [to vote], and now I think about how to go forward.”

Watch a clip from a recent workshop here, featuring a dozen young, potential first-time voters from diverse backgrounds and political points of view, describing the qualities they look for in a leader:

3. Slow down.

“There’s an amazing thing that happens when you ask people to slow down and solve a problem together,” said Ball.

Here, facilitators ask first-time voters to imagine themselves as the president of the United States who’s faced with a plausible crisis. By immersing students in a problem-solving scenario, they not only get to know one another and reckon with the fact that they don’t hold the same beliefs, they also begin to see their values in practice.

Watch a clip of these same students taking turns role-playing as the president addressing a natural disaster:

4. Create an open and safe space for exploration.

Vote by Design is rooted in open and honest discussion, where there are no right or wrong answers. It’s not about arguing for or against any candidate. It’s about learning from each other.

“One of the things that we’re passionate about in bringing this program to so many educators is trying to debunk this narrative that … we are destined to be divided,” said Solomon.

Try asking first-time voters: What are your hopes for the country and what are your hopes for its leader?

“When you frame it that way, you start to see patterns where it doesn’t matter what their political background is. Students will say things like, I’d like to see a country that’s unified. I’d like to see a country that’s repaired. I’d like to see a country that cares about others,” she said. “It allows them a starting place from which they start to unpack their different values that they may hold. And they start to realize that maybe they’re not so different after all.”

There are many more lessons from Vote by Design and reasons to feel inspired by Generation Z. Find them by watching the full Commonwealth Club event and checking out Lisa and Sam’s work at Vote by Design.

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.