Picture the things that bring you joy. Time with friends and family, your favorite hobby, and visiting beautiful locations are probably high on the list.
Registering to vote, researching candidates, and waiting in line at a polling place are likely not on the list at all. And in today’s climate of polarization, complex and sometimes restrictive voting laws, and even threats of violence, the voting process may feel fraught for many people.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Amid the daily onslaught of notifications and news updates that make us feel anxious, depleted and even hopeless about our democracy, how can we imagine voting (and broader civic engagement) as something that people feel good about and want to participate in?
Civic Joy: What and Why
As we continue to grapple with pandemic, extreme weather, and political division and violence, focusing on the concept of “joy” can feel pollyanna-ish — perhaps even shallow or misguided.
Instead, we can think of civic joy as an antidote that invites people into the civic process rather than drives them away. If an experience consistently makes you feel inadequate or anxious, why would you stick with it?
We can make a process more enjoyable without diminishing its importance.
When you think about events that bring joy to elections, what comes to mind might be “Party at the Polls”-style fairs and rallies. Organizations often host BBQs, festivals, block parties (and during the pandemic, “Couch Parties”) to get people hyped to vote.
But civic joy can (and should!) go beyond parties. It’s about making civic engagement inspiring, empowering, meaningful — and, yes, fun.
No shade to free food and swag, or celebrity cameos — they’re awesome, but they’re just one dimension of civic joy. It’s really about community empowerment and connections. Let’s break down what that means:
Civic Joy as Empowerment
One way to make civic engagement a more joyful process is to use language and prompts that make people feel empowered about participating.
Much of the rhetoric on voting centers either on civic duty (“you must…”) and fear (“if you don’t…”). While these messages might work for a little while, they eventually lead to feelings of overwhelm, despair and helplessness.
Lisa Kay Solomon is a Stanford professor, designer, and futurist working on several projects aimed at encouraging people to vote. While people do need what Kay Solomon calls “useful tools” (ie. clear instructions, functional technology) to engage, they also need to feel good about participating.
Her work looks at the question of: “How can we meet voters where they are and talk to them not through the lens of guilt and shame, but possibility?”
The answer can be as simple as reframing. Kay Solomon provides one example: She suggests voters think of themselves as hiring managers picking out the best candidate for the job of President. “What a gift!”
In the Vote by Design curriculum created by Solomon and her colleagues, they ask young people to think through what they value in a President, then choose the candidate that best embodies those values. This approach empowers by highlighting how much voters already do know, then creates space for what they want to learn.
Civic Joy as Engagement
When you get to have fun and be creative, that leads to active participation — which is in turn more effective at cultivating engagement that sticks over time.
“We are all about civic joy and know that it is an essential part of mobilizing, as well as of retaining and being able to apply learning,” says Sanda Babalan, the Co-Founder/Director of YVote and Next Generation Politics.
YVote’s August 2022 youth-led Civic Expo is a great example of infusing fun into the civic learning process. High school students from NYC led attendees through interactive games themed with issues they care about, like Game of Life: Uterus Edition, Climate Policy Water Pong, and Health Outcomes Tarot Card Readings.
Heily Rivas, a Miami Dade College alumni and campus-wide Motivote program manager, sees friendly competition as a great way to ensure voters have a positive experience and want to engage again. At MDC, dozens of clubs and courses compete against each other under the banners of eight campuses.
“Incorporating competition and making elections fun allows voters to feel engaged and rewarded,” Rivas says. “Once the next election comes around, voters will begin the season excited to fulfill their civic duty.”
Civic Joy as Rejuvenation
Burnout is a hot topic in the work world, and we see it in the civic engagement space too.
Think of civic joy as a form of wellness. It doesn’t make the topics less weighty or the consequences less stark; rather, it helps us rejuvenate and stay fresh.
“Fostering joy in this process is necessary to make it sustainable,” says Kayla DeMonte, the Deputy Director of Citizen University.
Citizen University is a nonprofit that helps people build a lifelong identity as a citizen — defined not by documentation status, but by how they shape the communities they live in.
What does this look like in practice? They’ve trained hundreds of people to run Civic Saturday events – a “civic analogue to a faith gathering.”
Held in parks, coffee shops and over Zoom, participants might sing, listen to poetry or “civic sermons” on topics like “defining the ‘we’” or patriotism, and engage in dialogue with neighbors.
The goal is to “build a belief and hope for our country, driven by caring about your neighbors and the people across the nation,” says DeMonte.
Civic Joy as Depolarization
When people come together to participate in civic routines, it can reduce polarization by surfacing similarities and shared goals.
One example of the best examples of people coming together across differences is sports.
Kay Solomon of Stanford and her team founded All Vote No Play, which helps student athletes and coaches promote civic engagement, because of the strong link between sports and civic participation. While fans are rooting for different teams, they’re united by the game and a sense of sportsmanship.
Steve Smith, who runs Civic Saturday events in Lincoln, Nebraska, says group-based activities are a reminder that “we’re all part of this.”
It’s a reminder that we are not isolated and detached,” he says. “We all make this country, and we can make it great or not so great.
Top Tips for Building Civic Joy
Reframe: Instead of trying to motivate with obligation or fear, highlight opportunities for empowerment, progress and opportunity. One example from Stanford design strategist Lisa Kay Solomon: When thinking about candidates, envision yourself as a hiring manager picking the best candidate for the job.
Infuse Fun: We can make a process more enjoyable without diminishing its importance. Why would you participate in something that constantly makes you feel drained? Whether through team-based activities, competitions, recognition and rewards, art and music, humor — when something is fun, it’s more appealing to join in.
Center Community: Trust is a core ingredient, and you can’t create that out of thin air. So, look toward community bonds that already exist. Do student clubs on your campus go all-in for the big fundraiser or annual scavenger hunt? Layer a voting readiness competition into the same event. Do your employees love shouting each other out on Slack for hitting sales milestones? Invite them to share their “I Voted” selfies there, too!
Want to infuse more JOY into your civic programming?
Motivote is a digital platform that builds community connections through shared commitments and progress.
Motivote’s team-based structure taps into desire for community, purpose, and fun. By inviting community members to team up and track progress, voters can tangibly see their progress and work together to hit goals — be it getting to 100% turnout or welcoming new voters into the process. Shared purpose is amplified by “I Voted” selfies, a visual reminder of everything the group has accomplished together. Get in touch to learn more!