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Renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky once said, “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued - they may be essential to survival.” However, the American democracy does not completely represent all citizens. Only 1 in 4 eligible Americans is currently registered to vote and in the 2012 general election, fewer than 58% of the voting population cast their ballot, according to the US Census bureau. The result of such low turnout is a democracy that does not reflect the voices and needs of all people.
One group working to bolster voter turnout is AIGA, the professional association for design. Starting in the year 2000, AIGA has led a nonpartisan voter mobilization campaign called “Get Out the Vote” every four years. The campaign features a registration drive for the general election, efforts to educate voters, and exhibitions that display politically-themed posters. The designs are crafted by AIGA members including Milton Glaser, the famous graphic designer who crafted the “I heart New York” logo. He spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek about his thoughts on voting.
“Voting is a manifestation of existing and proving that you exist because if you don’t vote, you’re essentially invisible and you don’t affect the structure of your own life or anybody else’s for that matter,” said Milton Glaser to Bloomberg.
This election cycle, AIGA partnered with the League of Women Voters to showcase the posters at The Galleries at CSU. An Exhibition of Design for Democracy was showcased on the corner of Euclid Ave. and E. 13th st. However, this exhibit was not your typical art show, but rather emphasized the impact of designers on American politics.
The exhibition’s curator was Jennifer Visocky O'Grady, who is a board member of Cleveland’s AIGA group. She explained that certain groups of people tend to vote less, which creates a less representative democracy.
“There [are] some real issues around voting in the United States that are critical and I think that all we can do right now as designers is start to bring attention and awareness to them and try and get more people excited and involved in the process,” O’Grady said.
One of those groups is millennial voters. Since the election of 1964, youth voters have always had the lowest voting turnout of any age group, despite issues like student debt and high tuition rates. Also, people who often change place of residency have more difficulties getting registered to vote, but the Get out the Vote initiative attempts to change that.
“I think what [the GOTV initiative] is doing is getting the message out there to anyone who can see it and that was our main goal,” O’Grady said.
On the final night of the exhibition, I visited The Galleries at CSU on the corner of Euclid Ave. and E. 13th St. just before closing time. While student workers were taking down posters, I caught up with Robert Thurmer, director and chief curator, who moved to the U.S. from Austria decades ago and became a naturalized citizen primarily to vote against then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. He stressed the importance of immigrants empowering themselves by voting as a way to express their political opinions.
“If you’re an illegal alien, nobody’s going to pay attention to your political opinion because you don’t have any rights. You might have great ideas, you might be a political genius but you don’t have any rights and nobody’s going to listen to you,” Thurmer said.
Upon entrance, I was stunned. My vision was flooded with the images of nearly 500 different posters sized 11x17 and 24x36 inches. They were arranged on the walls in a clean, block style and displayed messages like “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
Thurmer explained that although the posters were presented like pieces of art, design and art are not the same. However, he said, they aren't of a different breed.
These things are not designed as works of art,” Thurmer said. “They don’t claim to be works of art. Although, on a fundamental, ontological level, they are works of art.”
The Galleries is not usually open in the summertime, but the exhibition was set up to coincide with Republican National Convention. One week later, the posters were also displayed in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.
Many businesses on the outskirts of downtown had hoped for an influx of traffic during the RNC. However, explained that despite extended hours of operation and its close proximity to RNC headquarters, The Galleries at CSU did not receive as many visitors as hoped. This was the case for many local businesses who cited increased parking rates, road closures and security concerns for the disappointment.
In 2005, the AIGA worked with the US Election Assistance Commission to establish ballot and polling place design guidelines for 2008 election based on the commission’s report, “Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections.” Those guidelines, which are followed here in Cuyahoga County, were displayed in the exhibition to exemplify how ballot redesign impacts the voting process.
Sarah Rutherford teaches graphic design at CSU and is the faculty advisor for the university’s AIGA student group. As a board member of the Cleveland group, she explained the role of design in the American Democracy.
“The goal is to say, ‘well, how can we look at the process of voting, the process of being engaged with our elections, our candidates, our local representatives as designers?’” Rutherford said.
Rutherford discussed how issues with ballot design are only part of numerous barriers to voting. Those impediments include felony convictions in states like Florida, Iowa and Virginia, and difficult registration processes that vary depending on the state.
“There are issues with access to the voting process,” Rutherford said. “There are issues with access to voter registration.”
Prior to graduating from CSU this spring with a BA in Graphic Design, Pedro Huertas was an AIGA student member. He designed two posters for the Get out the Vote initiative which appeared in The Galleries’ exhibition.
His second piece involved a line graph in the shape of a “v” for vote, which represented the trend of youth voter turnout. Huertas discussed his perspective of the unique role that designers have to influence democracy.
“We have a big job on our hands to present these kinds of things to the public in ways that others can’t,” Huertas said. “It’s definitely a great opportunity for us to collaboratively come together, especially for something like this, for the [GOTV] campaign.”
The exhibition may have come to a close, but the Get out the Vote initiative continues through November until the next president of America is elected.
To learn more about AIGA and to download all posters for free, click here.
To check if you’re registered to vote and to get election information, click here.