Can public art rescue Philly voter turnout from the doldrums?

    In Philadelphia’s 2015 municipal primary elections, just 27 percent of eligible voters turned out to their polling places. Philadelphia and other large cities reflect a pattern of decreased voter turnout across the country.

    What exactly is keeping people away from the polls — and, more importantly, how can we bring them back? Is it possible to transform bleak queues at polling places to sites of amusement and wonder? Can we use art and performance to bring joy back to the act of voting?

    This November, Next Stop: Democracy will investigate how the arts may affect civic spaces and increase voter turnout.

    Ain’t no party like a political party

    Historically, voting in the United States wasn’t such a dull affair. However, the raucous, whiskey-fueled parties and heated debates that were once a staple of American politics have disappeared, along with a large percentage of voters.

    Voting has come to be seen as a private obligation instead of the public exercise of democracy. Campaign workers are required to stand far away from polls, and voters don’t linger before or after voting. Celebration has been reduced to “I voted” stickers and a tin of stale Tootsie rolls on the walk out the door.

    In search of answers, President Obama’s Commission on Election Administration found that Americans attribute non-voting to the inconvenience of missing work and re-arranging schedules. Malfunctioning voting equipment, long lines and unfriendly poll workers lead to confusion and further deter people from turning out.

    The power of pressure

    Social pressure (both negative and positive) increases voter turnout. Most Americans are genuinely ashamed to admit that they don’t vote. Voting data expert Mark Grebner started an experiment to publicize voting histories by neighborhood block. He found it was a rousing success — increasing turnout by an estimated 4 to 5 percent. Researchers have found that festivals also impact the way that people vote — from a small party in front of a polling place at a Hooksett, New Hampshire, middle school to a 12-city non-partisan festival experiment.

    What about places that “get it right” on a broader scale? Puerto Rico enjoys the highest voter turnout rates in the Western Hemisphere. On Election Day, businesses close, school is out, and spirits are high as people march to the polls wearing blue or red. Voting is followed by Election Day viewing parties.

    Notably, Puerto Rican communities in Philadelphia’s Kensington Neighborhood do not bring the culture of voting stateside. A philly.com article described a disillusioned, unenthusiastic electorate at polls in the area. What is it about Philadelphia that prevents the celebratory culture of voting from flourishing?

    A new look for Election Day

    Philadelphia creative agency Here’s My Chance believes that encouraging voting through place-based interventions can change the attitudes of Philly voters. Their Knight Foundation-funded Next Stop: Democracy! project will expand on the My Vote Performs model in Milwaukee to invigorate Philly’s electorate.

    By hiring local artists to make colorful “Vote Here” and “Votar Aqui” signs, and engaging local volunteers and youth, it will aim to instill a sense of joy and dialogue in polling places. Through musical and theatrical performances, polling places will be transformed and we will start to chip away at the stiffness, rigidity and secrecy associated with modern elections.

    Then community volunteer researchers from the University of Pennsylvania will measure the impact of the artist-forged signage and performances both qualitatively and quantitatively.  

    We may not be able to change the inconvenience of polling places, but we can change the experience of standing in line. Voting will become a spectacle, a party and a cultural experience. This November, Philly voters won’t just turn out, they’ll turn up!

    Kat York is an intern at Next Stop: Democracy whose Kickstarter campaign is funding the fabrication of frames for the “vote here” signs. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.