With November approaching, midterm election season is in full swing—and so is the fight for voter rights.
Eleven state legislatures are considering bills that would restrict voter access, while lawmakers in 39 states have considered some form of restrictive legislation for the 2022 legislative session.
Voter restrictions range from earlier deadlines, restrictive hours and decreases in the amount of drop-off ballots accepted, all of which often disproportionately impact voters of color and those with disabilities.
In response, a group of Northeastern journalism graduate students have joined forces with The Emancipator, the Boston Globe’s partnership with Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracism Research, to create an innovative voting rights project.
Aimed at engaging nonvoters or first-time voters, particularly young people, the project utilizes a suite of digital storytelling methods—from TikTok videos to a built-from-scratch chatbot—to provide an approachable, educational tool.
“That’s really what it’s about, is educating the community and being a tool and a resource,” said Amber Payne, who serves as co-editor-in-chief of The Emancipator with Deborah Douglas. “I feel like we accomplished that with this project.”
The project, which launched this week, began as part of a media innovation studio class, which tasked students with tackling a newsworthy story using new digital storytelling tools and engaging an actual audience.
Northeastern and The Emancipator team landed on three concepts as part of the project: a series of written profiles of voter rights activists, TikTok videos and a virtual chatbot that teaches voters about any restrictive legislation in their state. Students were divided into groups that worked on one of the three concepts, using the lessons learned in class to apply directly to their work.
The 20 or so graduate students in the class all came with varying levels of awareness about voting rights and different skills. But in every part of the project, the students aimed to reflect the perspectives of those who are often not engaged in voter rallying cries or broader canvassing efforts.
The 15 profiles spotlight changemakers across the country who are working at the state and local levels, many in communities that have been ignored or outright suppressed and disenfranchised.
“I think it was important to show that this is a local effort, that this is a statewide effort, and there are people putting in the work despite the fact that the party that’s claiming to protect our right to vote is not really doing anything about it on the larger scale of things,” Gabriel Cohen, a media advocacy student, said of the profiles.
Students scoured local newspapers to find the next generation of activists and organizers, like Reema Ahad, Muslim voter fund director for the Movement Voter Project. The resulting profiles are “a snapshot of America,” Douglas said, that helps people realize that despite the many attacks to voter rights there are people fighting back.
“Sometimes through all of the virtual ways that we’re seeing news and information today you still can feel a heightened sense of disconnection and sometimes you might think, ‘Is anybody out there?’” Douglas said. “These profiles show that there’s somebody out there.”
The students on the TikTok team had a different set of goals and challenges. They had to find the right tone for a set of videos that will provide the foundation for The Emancipator’s presence on the social media platform. They settled on a fun yet informative tone that would both entertain and educate the audience that The Emancipator hopes to engage.
“Specifically, with The Emancipator, they wanted to reach people of almost all ages, and TikTok is one of the perfect platforms for that because you can create content for both an older audience and a younger audience that will end up on someone’s ‘For you’ page.” Cheryl Daniel, a media advocacy student on the project, said.
“We’re trying to be mindful of that audience that maybe the other platforms might not be able to reach,” added Dakotah Kennedy, a media advocacy student on the team.
The TikTok team ended up creating more than 30 videos and even wrangled TikTok influencer Andre White to create a video for The Emancipator.
Vote Chat, the chatbot that two teams of students created from scratch, was one of the most involved parts of the project. Through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and text, users can learn basic voter information through Vote Chat on a state-by-state basis. But they can also use it to get up to speed on any recent legislation that has restricted or expanded voter rights in their state.
“Talking about laws can be super boring–and it was at one point–so being able to communicate all of that information for a group of people that has been overlooked is important,” said media innovation student Danica Jefferies.
Outside of data collection and coding, creating Vote Chat required fine-tuning the voice of the chatbot, which ended up having more attitude than the team originally planned for.
“You can see in our project that we really focus on the younger end of the spectrum because we made it really sassy, really snappy and added a little bit of modern lingo, some slang,” Yuuki Nishida, a grad student in the media advocacy program, said.
With the project launching this week, Douglas hopes the relatable, accessible tone of the project will hit home with people who are increasingly frustrated or overwhelmed by the current state of voter rights.
“The system is not scary,” Douglas said. “We can figure this out, and for every step we can take, every right that we can activate, there’s a way to do that.”
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