Back to all news stories

Behavioral science insights used to create college voter spaces, increase U-M campus voter participation

Jamie Sherman Blinder

Creative Campus Voting Project, UMMA location

ANN ARBOR—By creating a seamless voting experience for young and often first-time voters, two University of Michigan art and design professors hope to foster a new generation of lifelong voters.

Professors Stephanie Rowden and Hannah Smotrich of the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design are the co-leads of the nonpartisan Creative Campus Voting Project on the U-M campus. 

Since 2018, Rowden and Smotrich have partnered across the campus and with the city of Ann Arbor to create a positive, accessible and comprehensible experience for voters during major election seasons. And it seems to be working: Between 2014 and 2018, campus voter participation jumped from 14% to 41%; from 2016 to 2020, numbers increased from 60% to 78%. 

“One of the most exciting things has been to have our assumption that students really are interested in voting confirmed, and that shows up in the numbers,” said Rowden, associate professor of art and design and sound artist whose work focuses on participatory public art.

2022 installations aim to remove barriers for voters

When analyzing the behavioral science research around voter participation on campus, Smotrich and Rowden found that clarity and comprehension regarding the voting process itself were among the students’ biggest challenges.

“For us this is a really interesting creative problem … it’s a really important problem,” Rowden said. “It’s one that is concrete, that we can observe, and we feel very privileged that we can do this work with and for students.”

With a comfortable and welcoming environment, focus is placed first and foremost on making the process accessible, enjoyable and comprehensible.

Satellite locations of the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Office will be erected at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) Stenn Gallery on Central Campus, where residents, including U-M students who live in Ann Arbor, will be able to register to vote, obtain absentee ballots, complete ballots on site if they wish, and return their absentee ballots to an official city of Ann Arbor dropbox.

Creative Campus Voting Project

Creative Campus Voting Project

Smotrich and Rowden collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of student research assistants to create a 50-foot immersive ​”Ballot Wayfinder” as a focal point in one location, orienting new voters to the many parts of a ballot. U-M students also play a crucial role as peer-to-peer mentors in each location, welcoming students and clarifying the process.

Creative Campus Voting Project

Creative Campus Voting Project

“Instead of experiencing a fairly dry, bureaucratic space like they might at city hall, students enter a light-filled, glass-enclosed gallery,” said Smotrich, associate professor of art and design and visual communication designer. Her research explores how design can make the possibilities for change visible, accessible and actionable.

Open for voting

The Creative Campus Voting Project spaces will be open and active through Nov. 8. 

UMMA voting hours are Monday-Thursday noon-6 p.m.; Friday noon-4 p.m., with additional hours during election week: Saturday, Nov. 5, noon-4 p.m.; Monday, Nov. 7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; and Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 8, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Duderstadt voting hours are Wednesday-Thursday noon-6 p.m.; Friday noon-4 p.m.; Monday, Oct. 24, noon-6 p.m.; and Election Day Tuesday, Nov 8., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.