Designing a Better Democracy

New Course Creates Innovative Ways to Increase College Election Participation

Could a giant Testudo shell packed with games entice students to pause and learn about voting? What about a mysterious-looking stack of black boxes? Or a multistory projection onto a building?

Those are among the many ideas from a new class this spring, “Design and Democracy,” that brought together architecture, public policy, government and politics, and art majors to develop pop-up proposals to encourage college students to register and cast ballots this presidential election year.

Hannah Smotrich, an associate professor of design at the University of Michigan who is the Arts for All designer-in-residence at UMD, and UMD architecture Professor Ronit Eisenbach co-taught the course, bringing in election experts to talk to students about the importance and challenge of increasing civic engagement. Americans aged 18-24 turned out to vote at the lowest rate of any age group in the 2020 election, according to the U.S. census.

“How do we get students to not only see that voting is important, but figure out how to actually vote?” Eisenbach says.

Since STEM majors are less likely to cast a ballot, students focused on engaging engineering majors by rendering installation ideas, designing pamphlets and posters on the registration process, and developing survey questions on voting (or non-voting) behaviors. Then, they formed multidisciplinary teams to scale up their ideas, culminating in an exhibit at the end of the semester.

“Maryland is lucky that there’s an amazing group of people interested in this work of expanding civic participation,” Smotrich says. “If these creative projects can bring more people into the conversation, that’s a win.”


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