Something remarkable happened in Culver City on Tuesday.
On April 12, 2016, Culver City, CA, with a population of roughly 40,000, held its city council election. It is estimated that when all vote by mail ballots are counted, the turnout will hit 24% of registered voters.
This may seem low, except that the turnout was 14.2% in the last election. The 24% voter turnout completely overshadowed that of neighboring Los Angeles county cities that held elections that day. The much larger city of Long Beach got only an 11.5% turnout on April 12.
What was different about Culver City?
In 2015, the city government committed itself to doing something about its abysmal voter participation. It took a risk and contracted with a new nonprofit organization, SeePolitical.com, to mount a campaign called Culver City Counts.
Nate Kaplan founded SeePolitical.com to increase voter participation by creating clever animated videos to educate citizens about ballot issues. As a young staffer for politicians, he discovered that even they had trouble comprehending the turgid voter information booklet distributed by the state of California to explain ballot initiatives. How much harder was it for the rest of the voters to make sense of the propositions? Nate recruited Hollywood professionals and college students in animation programs to produce short, creative, engaging video explanations of the issues that would be accessible on smart phones. Culver City became aware of his fledgling project, and hired him to work his magic on its voter turnout problem.
SeePolitical.com designed a brand logo for the campaign: “Birdee”, a very cute, squat little bird image that “tweeted” the message of voter participation. “Culver City Counts” banners with the Birdee image appeared over intersections on Culver City streets, on sample ballots and vote by mail ballots, on city publications and the city website, and in emails sent to citizens’ groups, churches, and temples. It may be the first time that an election itself, rather than a candidate or proposition, has been “branded”. The campaign included a couple of animated videos in English and Spanish featuring Culver City landmarks, with Birdee flapping happily about, urging people to register, vote, and work at the polls.
I got to know Nate in the course of a nonpartisan, interfaith project in which I’m engaged, to put spiritual ritual into the process of voting as a way of deepening people’s commitment to participation in elections. So I joined in Nate’s experiment, taking a bit part in the campaign to spread the message to churches and temples in Culver City. One afternoon, I joined Nate at the Culver City Farmers’ Market to pass out campaign flyers. The most common feedback we heard was about Birdee: people saw the image everywhere in town and loved it. I made Birdee stamps to mark the hands of people who committed to vote. Nice idea, but really only the children wanted their hands stamped! Nate took the Birdee message to the high school, to neighborhood organizations, and to candidate forums.
Nate’s goal was to double the voter turnout to 28%. But the nearly 10-point increase was still a resounding achievement, given the very low base-line for participation in the past.
Culver City’s boundary is gerrymandered, with a weird tentacle reaching deep into LA’s Westside to hoover up sales tax revenues. Some people in this little city, notable for its concentration of media studios, have no idea that they live in Culver City at all; they think they are Angelenos. And others who live in LA City but within the Culver City zipcode are confused in the opposite way. The gargantuan sprawl of the Los Angeles area decouples many residents from any sense of civic identity or participation. No mortal mind can comprehend this monstrous metropolis, its politicians included. So it is no wonder that the nation’s already terrible level of voter turnout is even worse in this region.
Few people in the political class have much of a direct, personal interest in increasing voter turnout. The fewer folks who actually vote, the cheaper it is to reach them with a campaign message. Added to this is a long-term, cynical strategy by some politicians to demonize government, resulting in dysfunction in governance, compounding people’s distrust in democracy. And now there is a voter suppression effort succeeding in many states, making it harder for low-income and minority people to cast ballots.
Besides getting people turned on to voting, Nate Kaplan’s passion is surfing. He knows something about swimming against the tide. In Culver City, he’s caught a wave that other jurisdictions ought to be riding with him.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California