(Photo by Conrad Benner)
Here’s a sobering reminder: Only about 25 percent of Philly’s registered voters cast their votes on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
Creative agency Here’s My Chance was aware that might be the case beforehand, though, so it took action.
Its civic engagement art project, Next Stop: Democracy!, won a $166,394 grant from the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge last year to commission 60 local artists (including a few inmates at Graterford prison) to design bright sandwich boards reading both “Vote Here” and “Vote Aqui.” The signs were placed at 20 polling places around the city in the hopes of drawing attention — and possibly voters — to the sites. Ten billboards reading “#VoteNov3rd“ were also placed around the city before the election.
November’s election, starring Jim Kenney’s sweeping mayoral win, attracted slightly more voters than former mayor Michael Nutter’s reelection in 2011 when 20 percent of registered voters turned out and slightly fewer than his first run for mayor in 2007 when 29 percent turned out.
Next Stop: Democracy!’s goal from the start hadn’t necessarily been to increase voter turnout with the signs, but to make polling places more recognizable and improve citizens’ overall voting experience. In turn, the signs were not found to increase the likelihood that a person voted — most people who were there to vote already knew where their polling place was.
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However, the signs did increase voters’ engagement with the voting process.
A research study about the effectiveness of the project was conducted by Penn faculty member Ken Winneg and Ph.D student Laura Henderson on Election Day. Interviewers were stationed at 20 locations with signs and 20 without, which were “similarly matched on voter history, geography and demographics,” and collected 2,602 exit polls.
Here were some of the results:
- The turnout was nearly the same at locations with and without signs.
- Of locations with signs, 48.6 percent of voters said they noticed the signs.
- Of the same group, 4.3 percent of voters said they found the location because of the signs.
- Of all polled voters, 43.9 percent said they noticed the billboards reading “#VoteNov3rd“ before the election.
- Of those who saw the signs, 39.7 percent said it was “helpful in showing them where to vote,” and 39.4 percent said it “made their polling place feel more welcoming.”
- Of the same group, 31.3 percent said it “reminded them to vote”; 19.6 percent said it “made voting more enjoyable”; 17.7 percent said it “made them talk to someone else about the election”; 15.5 percent said it “made them tell someone else to vote”; and 14.9 percent said it “made them more likely to vote in the future.”
- Of 28 artists who responded to a follow-up survey about their experience creating the signs, 61 percent said they were more likely to vote because of their experience, and the majority said they discussed the upcoming election with others because of their experience.
According to local Knight Foundation Program Director Patrick Morgan, the project was a success despite that it didn’t seem to bring would-be non-voters to the polls.
“The project is about making voting more enticing,” he said. “In terms of doing that, I think the signage project was a big success. In terms of its digital engagement and engagement with [citizens], of the seven winners of last year, it got the most digital and media play and was able to extend to reach beyond people who went to those 60 voting locations.”
If HMC conducts the project again, it will likely focus less on specific polling places and more on the city at large in the form of billboards or public transportation signage, wrote Project Director Lansie Sylvia in an email. HMC is also lending the signs to community partners for the Pennsylvania primary on April 26. The local branch of the Knight Foundation is supporting that effort with a microgrant.
But there’s a lot more needed than some colorful signs to make a change in voter turnout.
“For people to turn out to vote, they need to feel like their vote matters and that they have an important place within their communities,” Sylvia said. “They have to have faith in the government and feel a sense not only of civic duty, but of civic pride.
Still, she said, art has its place in civic engagement.
“People are hungry to be a part of a community here in Philadelphia,” Sylvia said. “We need more cross-pollination between your average community members and the really wonky experts who know where the critical interventions can be made to really improve things. And I think art can bridge that gap.”
Next Stop: Democracy! will be discussed tonight alongside other local initiatives to increase voter engagement at an event at 6 p.m. called “Defibrillating Democracy.”
Community partners interested in borrowing the signs to display for up to two weeks before the primary election on April 26 can contact Project Assistant Kat York at firstname.lastname@example.org. Signs can be picked up from 1227 N. 4th St. on Saturdays, April 9 and 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.-30-
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