Organizations on campus have been planning events to reach out to potential voters since before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has forced them to adapt their methods of voter outreach. 

Initially, most of their plans focused on in-person activities, according to Art & Design Professor Hannah Smotrich, co-lead of the Campus Creative Voting Project.

“One of our takeaways from 2018 was that the most powerful tool we have is face-to-face interaction and peer mentors,” Smotrich said.  

In a normal election year, registration groups like Turn Up Turnout would set up tables across campus to help guide new voters. This year, COVID-19 made tabling unsafe, so the organization had to find new ways to reach voters.

TUT secretary Logan Woods, a Rackham student, said instead of going out into public spaces, Turn Up Turnout members are inviting voters to come to them. They have created hotlines where potential voters can ask questions that will be answered quickly by someone on the team. People can either text (833) 4-UMVOTE or email voterregquestions@umich.edu if they are confused about any step in the voting or registration process

“With the online tools, with the hotlines, we’re trying to replace that in-person interaction as much as we can with something that will be as close as we can get it to replicate the experience,” Woods said. 

The Campus Creative Voting Project had originally planned “SparkVotes Party-in-a-Box,” where student hosts would gather a group of friends and play games related to registration. This event, which will take place on Oct. 17, will now be held entirely online over Zoom. 

Smotrich and her co-lead Stephanie Rowden, an Art & Design associate professor, said they are trying to ensure the event will still be fun for students: they’re giving out raffle prizes that include AirPods and gift cards to local businesses.

The SparkVotes party initiative is the application of Smotrich and Rowden’s research about voter behavior and engagement. Their observations indicate that students want to vote, but are often hindered by the confusing process. Rowden said they’re using social interaction to make voting and registration more understandable. 

“It’s kind of playfulness and humor and the interest in the ability to create community and the ability to think a little sideways,” Rowden said. “We think about bringing all of those things together. Of the various projects that we’re focused on for 2020, we’re tapping into all of those skills and sensibilities.”

One research study found that social engagement and community nudging are integral to increasing voter participation. Turn Up Turnout is increasing its social media presence while the Campus Creative Voting Project established a TenTuesdays campaign to encourage participants to stay on track to vote. 

These organizations and others on campus have recently started working together. Smotrich cited the satellite clerk’s office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as a joint initiative between student organizations, the museum, the University and the city of Ann Arbor. 

“That’s been the silver lining of this,” Smotrich said. “Even though many of us are within a mile of each other, we’re all connecting via computers and that the irony is that there are closer connections and more integrations of efforts in some ways.”

The city clerk’s satellite office at the UMMA allows residents to register to vote and drop off their absentee ballots. They also accept absentee ballot applications and give voters their ballots in one, in-person transaction. The office will be open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays the week prior to the election. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson attended the opening of the office on National Voting Registration Day in September.

“City clerks are stepping up this year to develop important partnerships with community leaders and grassroots organizations all around the state to make voting accessible and secure, ensuring that every vote is counted and every voice is heard,” Benson said in September.

In the first week of opening, the satellite clerk’s office registered more than a thousand students to vote. Both Rowden and Smotrich described the level of engagement they are seeing as encouraging. Still, Woods said it is too early to compare the rates of registration of this year to 2016 or 2018. 

Turn Up Turnout’s president Josiah Walker, an LSA senior, said though the UMMA has seen high levels of registration and voting, it is the only in-person place to register on campus now that tabling events have been canceled.

“To an extent, just by looking at it, you can fall victim to representative bias because ‘Oh, wow, the satellite clerk’s office has steady traffic all day and all night and clearly more students are getting registered to vote this year,’ and right now the numbers are still really even,” Walker said. “But I definitely want the progress to be maintained.”

Daily News Contributor Safura Syed can be reached at safura@umich.edu. 

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