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Front-Page Voter Registration: Q&A with the Ithaca Times

Why and how local papers can help with hurdles to voting, at every stage


(Marshall Hopkins)

Q. Can you describe what you created and tell us a bit about why?

We’re a weekly local paper in Ithaca NY and we cover news, arts, and events in the area. Ithaca is a pretty big college town, being the home of Cornell University and Ithaca College, so we do a series of double issues where our paper becomes twice as long in the fall to kick off the new school year, when the population essentially doubles. As the production director and designer, I am always stressing out a little bit about how to do the best job with the design of the covers. Around the time that I was stressing about what to put on the student survival guide for this year, something showed up in a feed somewhere about how this year there was a lot more activity about the “get out the vote” effort on campuses around the country. That’s basically when I got the idea of using the cover to help people register to vote. I wasn’t even sure it was possible at that point. So I went from what I’ve normally been thinking about, which is how to design something really beautiful and creative, to “Oh I’m just going to put a form on the cover.” It was much later that I realized that it was actually going to be a functional form. Initially I was thinking, “I’m just going to put [an image of the form] on the cover.”

Q. And then what did you do next?

I looked up the form which is available on the New York State election board website, and I saw the instructions to register were to print the form out. They linked to a downloadable PDF. It was then I realized it could actually be a functional form. Essentially by publishing it we’re going to be printing it out for people.

I was so excited about the idea that I began to get very nervous that it wasn’t going to work out somehow. There’s a ton of ways things can get killed; I hadn’t even tried it, it was only in my mind at that point. So before I even showed it to anybody, I tried to get it as designed as possible. I didn’t want to pitch it to our publisher on just a verbal idea. I thought of the idea on a Sunday night, and our paper goes to press on Tuesday nights, so Monday morning I came in and mocked it up right away. I tried a bunch of different things with it. The dimensions are not the same as our cover so that left a little bit of room for play.

Q. How did the design and pitching process go?

The form itself is a much more vertical format than our paper, which is sort of square. I was worried I would be forced to reproduce it too small to be legible. So what I ended up designing was like a full takeover. The form even covers almost three-fourths of the logo of the paper. You can understand, if you owned a paper you wouldn’t be super psyched about covering up the logo on the front page. My pitch was essentially that this is a bipartisan outreach and a gesture of help in this process of voting. We have our logo perfectly visible on all other 51 weeks of the year. It would be a gesture of our commitment, in a way, that we care so much about this that we’re willing to cover our logo.

In a way, covering our logo and putting the full form on is part of what made it a powerful gesture. Not only did it make the form actually useable, because to shrink it below the masthead would have made the type too small, but it was also a gesture.

It really just started as wanting a cool cover that was eye-catching, just like all my weeks, and we got excited about it because we realized that it was a nice and powerful gesture to the community.

Q. So you pitched it, and the publisher said ok. How did you know that a newsprint form would be acceptable to the state? Was it clear that newsprint stock would be accepted or did you have to get special permission?

It was sort of a guess on our part in the beginning. The managing editor did call our local elections board, and he put in a query to see if newsprint would be ok. It’s a two-sided form so the [state’s] form is actually designed to be folded and a stamp placed directly on this form and mailed in. The actual forms provided by the state are on a heavy-duty stock of paper. So [our version was] sort of the opposite of that, but they said it was accepted. They also said in New York, if someone were to send in a letter and as long as it had all the proper information and a properly worded affidavit, they could register someone based on that. We were pretty confident that it would be a fully functional voter registration, and that was confirmed. The election board has said they’ve received around 20–30 of these in the first week.

Q. This was a print project. That’s a little unusual because a lot of attention these days goes to digital. What is the role of print in your operation and why is print an effective mode at the moment for you?

Print for local weeklies is really still quite strong. We have a very good distribution of the paper in Ithaca and it just is around, it makes its way around through the coffee shops and grocery stores. Our local daily is a Gannett daily that has seen quite drastic cutbacks to the point where it’s really tough to call it a local paper these days. We as the alt weekly, which was founded on more arts and entertainment coverage, have really stepped in to fill a lot of the news coverage as well. There is very much a print-heavy focus to the journalism that we do, and it has a sweet spot in the town. There are those little pickup boxes, and it has a great calendar section in the back. There’s a lot of activity with it. Everything that we publish eventually makes its way onto our website which is ithaca.com but we do start from the print edition.

Q. Did you have other conversations with your staff or the publisher about the role of journalists in encouraging civic participation? What were any of those conversations like, or do you have a philosophy about that?

We were really excited that it was going to be something that we could do to make this process easier. It’s by no means all that voters have to do and all that voters have to organize…. People are busy, especially students just when they’ve arrived on a new campus. I remember when I first went to college I voted with an absentee ballot. Just the thought of trying to get out of my freshman dorm and make it to wherever the polling places was—for the area where I’d just moved and knew nothing about—it just seemed daunting.

Anything that anyone can do to help anyone start participating in elections is great. So we’re really excited about doing this tiny thing which happens to be the first thing that people need to do [to vote]. I think newspapers, especially local newspapers, can do a lot with helping out with those hurdles [to voting]. Every one of them is kind of a little mystery that newspapers can help solve in a way. Even after the registration is turned in, maybe a voter wants to request an absentee ballot or now they need to know where their polling place is, or now they want to study up on the actual ballot or the ballot questions, or the candidates. Before every election we do an election roundup but there’s all these other hurdles that voters need to know about, and sometimes they have it on their to-do list to figure out, but a lot of times they just do not get to it. We realize that any little thing you can do can make a big difference, in getting someone on to the next level.

The next thing I’d actually like to cover is just a map of the polling locations for our newcomers who’ve just arrived in town. Our county draws up election districts and wards, and there’s no way you would know—unless you went on the election board website, but it takes some deciphering.

Our business is communicating. There’s a ton of room for helping out and lending a hand with our communication skills to civic institutions like the board of elections or the city government. We’re helping them with what we’re good at.

Since it was published, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it was well-received, and that’s when I’ve started to think about how the hurdles needed for registering and voting and wondering about other ways that our news coverage could help in the same sort of way.

Q. Anything else about the design that we haven’t talked about yet?

One thing I have thought about: it’s almost like a non-design design. I spend a lot of time on covers, choosing typography very carefully and choosing gorgeous illustrations. This cover designed itself in a way. I still put an amount of thought into it, but I feel like it’s partially the work that I’ve done on the other covers that allowed this cover be approved. It’s just a black and white form on a taupe background, and it’s not the most eye-catching traditional combination of colors, but its muted design helped it stand out, especially with people who are familiar with our week-to-week. That’s an important design trick, essentially. You can’t always be loud, sometimes softening up a little bit in contrast to other things that are shouting can be the most eye-catching and most visible.

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