For the next six months, California voters will be bombarded with election images.
Not just soundbites, mailers, and ads for and against presidential candidates, but also campaigns for ballot initiatives: Eight have already been approved and many more are circulating.
Among the sinister attack-ad voice-overs and the political arguments engulfing social media, voters may catch a glimpse of ”Birdee,” a plump, twinkly eyed red bird, one of several animated characters in California’s political wars.
“We’ve brought Hollywood’s creative firepower to voters in an unbiased way.”
But Birdee isn’t trying to convince voters of a ballot initiative or a candidate’s merits — he’s just trying to get them out to the polls.
Birdee was the brainchild of SeePolitical, a Los Angeles-based non-profit aimed educating voters and increasing election turnout. SeePolitical was founded in 2011 by Nate Kaplan, a Massachusetts native and longtime political staffer. He was working for late Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl in 2008, when he realized that ballot measure language was so obscure, that his boss, an openly gay politician and gay rights advocate, didn’t know which way to vote on Proposition 8 to protect gay marriage.
“Something we hear a lot is ‘Why doesn’t Hollywood ever help with this problem?’” Kaplan said. “We’ve brought Hollywood’s creative firepower to voters in an unbiased way.”
Kaplan partnered with Imaginary Forces, a Hollywood production studio responsible for the opening credits of Mad Men and many other iconic scenes and advertisements. Together they created SeePolitical’s 30, videos and animated shorts that explain ballot initiatives and encourage citizens to register and get out to the polls.
Los Angeles is considering getting its own election mascot.
And then came Culver City.
Culver City suffers from historically low rates of voter participation, hovering just above 10 percent most years, according to Kaplan. With the city’s April 2016 election poised to drown in the noise of a highly-publicized presidential race, Culver City asked SeePolitical for help.
Since political campaigns brand themselves with slogans, images, and ideas, Kaplan and SeePolitical asked themselves why they couldn’t do the same with the election itself. Birdee was born as a mascot for the Culver City election.
The image took off, and on the April 12 election day, Culver City broke its record for voter turnout: 22 percent of eligible voters participated. Compared to recent elections, the city saw nearly a 60 percent increase in the number of voters itself.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Kaplan said. “It really worked.”
Now the Los Angeles City Council, which saw a turnout of 8.6 percent in its most recent election, has asked SeePolitical to submit a proposal — the city is considering getting its own election mascot.
With such a huge statewide election coming up this fall, advocates of civic engagement are watching SeePolitical as a new model of improving voter turnout and education.
“A lot of voting information has been boring and very text-oriented. We really need to pay attention to design and animation and color and icons and sound,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “It’s not just about reading words that once only lived on a page, and now they live on a web page.”
“They’d rather vote on American Idol or The Voice because, to many people, that is more exciting and drama-filled, and they know when it’s on.”
Secretary of State Alex Padilla has already requested additional funding from the state, both to help counties respond to surges in registration and to improve the format of the voter guide this fall. According to Sam Mahood, Padilla’s office has also partnered with the Center for Civic Design and the League of Women Voters to create a more plain language version of the Voter Bill of Rights.
But even with those efforts, this year’s election will be “the perfect storm,” according to Kaplan, as the voter guide is likely to be over 250 pages this November.
According to Alexander, there are six million eligible voters in the state who are not registered. The state hit a record low level of turnout in the November 2014 election, according to Mindy Romero, director of UC Davis’ California Civic Engagement Project. According to historical turnout data from the Secretary of State’s office, only special elections have seen lower rates than the 30.94 percent of eligible voters that came out in 2014.
When the only official source of information available to voters is a black and white newsprint pamphlet included with Scantron ballots, it can make voting feel as tedious to voters as taking an exam or filing taxes.
“They’d rather vote on American Idol or The Voice because, to many people, that is more exciting and drama-filled, and they know when it’s on,” Romero said.
According to Alexander and Romero, many voters don’t feel confident enough in their understanding of candidate platforms and issues to vote. Others struggle with the logistics of voting, such as election dates and registration processes. Those obstacles are further compounded by the challenges of daily life for many Californians, like taking care of a family or putting a roof over their heads.
“A lot of people who don’t vote in California aren’t actively making a decision not to vote,” Alexander said. “It really is a luxury for people. I blame economic problems for part of the depression in turnout.”
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that campaigns are unlikely to waste valuable funds on demographics that don’t typically vote.
“If you’re part of an economic class that candidates don’t see as likely to vote, they don’t reach out to you,” Alexander said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
When the only official source of information available to voters is a black and white newsprint pamphlet included with Scantron ballots, it can make voting feel as tedious to voters as taking an exam or filing taxes. Furthermore, reliance on political campaigns to educate voters leaves obvious opportunity for bias. SeePolitical hopes to provide voters something between the tedious but impartial educational materials from the government and the entertaining but slanted information from campaigns.
“We want to be that main source of information that’s unbiased and nonpartisan,” Kaplan said. “Something that Republicans and Fox and Democrats and MSNBC can air and use.”
Kim Alexander compared it to Schoolhouse Rock, the educational cartoon known for explaining government, grammar, and math to generations of students.
But even Kaplan, with his background in Democratic politics, can’t avoid that potential for bias alone. That’s why each SeePolitical video undergoes a thorough vetting process involving the whole team, which includes members from across the political spectrum.
“We keep a close eye on every little thing,” Kaplan said. “Every frame is getting the point across in an unbiased fashion.” He added that the process involves everything from ensuring that graphics frame issues impartially to checking that actors’ voices don’t change tone at the wrong moment.
Such an involved process doesn’t come cheap. If SeePolitical wants voters to view and circulate their videos, they’ll have to keep up with campaigns, which have SuperPACs and wealthy donors at their disposal. SeePolitical has received donations from organizations like the League of Women Voters, grants, and in-kind contributions, like the work that Imaginary Forces donates. Even with that support, however, the non-profit is still actively fundraising, Kaplan said.
Although the non-profit, SeePolitical does have financial hurdles to jump, there is precedent for something like it being popularized as a source of information.
Alexander compared it to Schoolhouse Rock, the educational cartoon known for explaining government, grammar, and math to generations of students. Romero added that although the production of the video entails great costs, digital media can be shared in ways that are far more cost efficient than print.
Though Romero said as a researcher, she can’t attribute Culver City’s increase in voter turnout directly to SeePolitical’s videos, she did say, “There’s probably a science to it… People will click on a video they know is only 90 seconds to two minutes.”
Particularly given low turnout rates among younger voters, SeePolitical could be a valuable tool as its videos get shared over social media.
“Millennials vote less than any generation in American history and volunteer more and do more community service than any generation in American history,” Kaplan said of his commitment to reach out to younger voters.
While right now, Kaplan said that SeePolitical is focused on state ballot measures and local elections, advocates are optimistic about the prospects for non-profits like it to improve civic engagement on a broader scale.
“In the bigger scheme of things, it’s in everybody’s interest to have people participating,” Alexander said. “The people who vote in our state look less and less like the people who live in our state. That’s a big concern for everyone.”