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Combining Media, Tech, and Election Ideas to Increase Civic Participation

By Jessica Mahone / 2015 March 17th

Political participation in the U.S. is often reduced to Americans’ engagement in federal elections. During campaigns, political observers combine available data and anecdotes to speculate on whether a candidate has the ground, financial, and likely-voter support to win the White House or a given congressional seat. After Election Day, many of the same pundits lament low voter participation rates, as in the 2014 midterms when turnout was at its lowest since WWII.

Rarely do these conversations meaningfully consider what voters’ participation in campaigns and at the ballot box says about broader civic engagement — particularly when it comes to the down-ticket elections and ballot issues that aren’t top of mind or at the top of news cycles but actually make up the majority of questions on most ballots.

This, in part, is why the Democracy Fund recently joined with the Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Rita Allen Foundation on a $3 million challenge to identify how we can better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during, and after elections. (Apply by 5 pm eastern on March 19th.)

The voter participation lag for state and local elections, particularly in off-cycle and midterm years, is typically well behind federal elections. In recent years, local turnout has been falling even further behind, plummeting to a low of approximately 18 percent in 2009 with an average turnout rate near 26 percent between 1996-2011. This is far below the already low 35.9 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots for federal candidates in November.

At the same time that we have seen declines in voting in local races, state and local journalism has also suffered. Local newspapers have shut down and the number of reporters devoted to state reporting has declined by 35 percent since 2003. The result is a local news environment trying to do more with less and in need of new tools to inform and engage voters at the local level. In this situation, citizens lack the information they need to make critical decisions about local and state issues.

While many factors may account for any voter’s decision to participate in a particular election, confidence in one’s knowledge and ability to influence our governing institutions and public squares are important factors. Fundamental to this knowledge is the need for innovative tools that make it easier for the public to access and use a huge range of information, from voter registration deadlines to in-depth reporting on urgent issues. The types of information that voters would find useful are myriad, and so are the platforms and projects that reporters, election officials, and academics, among others, could use to creatively deliver that information in ways that energize ongoing participation.

As the News Challenge brief states: “This contest is open to anyone, from journalists, students, civic technologists, and academics, to news organizations, businesses, nonprofits, governments and individuals. In addition to the projects that better inform voters and streamline the voting process, we hope to find some ideas that will increase civic participation beyond Election Day. We see democratic engagement as more than just the act of voting. It should be embedded in every part of civic life, extending before and after an election.”

The Democracy Fund seeks out organizations and partners that are working to ensure our political systems are responsive to the needs of the American public. It’s a complicated and long-term challenge that requires collaborations like this one, through which we hope to see innovative ideas that cross the media, technology and election administration fields in ways that could give voters the tools and information they need to engage on Election Day and beyond.

The Democracy Fund is partnering with the Knight Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation on Knight News Challenge: Elections, which asks the question, How might we better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections? The best nonpartisan ideas will share in more than $3 million. Apply at by 5 p.m. ET March 19. Winners will be announced in June.

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