Voters eating food truck cuisine and playing Jenga outside the #PlaceMakeTheVote event hosted by City Fabrick during the June 7 primary. Photo: Jason Ruiz
Voting is a civic responsibility that, on average, draws less than half the registered voters in an area out to have their voice recorded with the stamp of a pen. Perhaps it’s all the red tape involved with getting registered for the proper party to ensure your eligibility to vote, the constant deadlines or the fact that for some, voting is about as fun as going to the DMV. But what if voting was made fun?
That was the aim of a partnership between City Fabrick, a non-profit design studio based in Long Beach, the Long Beach City Clerk’s Office, Long Beach Rising! and the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder City Clerk yesterday as it hosted a Place Make the Vote event, setting up a tailgate-style party outside the Long Beach Senior Center’s polling station to draw people in. The idea was funded by grant money from the Knight Foundation, which awarded 37 cities earlier this year with funds for individual projects that sought to improve their communities.
City Fabrick Executive Director Brian Ulaszewski said the grant process started in October of last year when the group submitted its place making plans to the Knight Foundation, and in April the group was awarded over $153,000 to carry out its voting experiment here in Long Beach. The design studio has helped craft similar public spaces like their Place Make the Vote effort Tuesday afternoon, just never at a polling station.
“We wanted to focus on low voter-engaged communities,” Ulaszewski said. “That’s where our specific focus will be. But as far as the kit, we imagine that this is something communities across the city and across the nation could adopt and do based on their own interests.”
According to the Long Beach City Clerk’s office, the two precincts that vote at the senior center registered voter turnouts of 10.43 percent and 12.1 percent respectively during the April primary. The second district runoff race garnered less than 7,000 votes, not including provisional and vote-by-mail ballots still to be counted by the LA County office. That translates to less than 25 percent of the 28,083 registered voters in the district. Still, that's a vast improvement from the 11.5 percent turnout citywide in the April primary.
Earlier this year, Long Beach officially combined its voting day efforts for the statewide primary with the LA County office to eliminate the confusion of "Two Vote Tuesday." Figures from the LA County office were not announced prior to publication, but a number of voters seeking to vote provisionally at the senior center location were from other parts of the city, but stopped to fill their ballots out there anyway.
“I had to stop by because it looked like a party,” one woman said upon exiting the poll.
The kit City Fabrick used to activate the area consisted of voting-themed games like "Political Pong," an alcohol-free version of beer pong, and life-sized Judicial-Jenga. The group installed a parklet in front of the driveway at the senior center, complete with patio furniture and fake grass for those exiting the polls or simply passing by to seize the chance to activate the area.
Inside the pop-up social space were food trucks that offered street tacos, Italian ice and fresh salads for those voting on their lunch breaks or in need of a snack after satisfying their hunger to vote. After, they could help themselves to some of the #PlaceMakeTheVote swag put out by City Fabrick or play a bi-partisan game of corn hole.
The biggest hit was the photo-booth, where Carrie Ortiz and her husband saw a steady stream of patrons ready to be photographed wearing patriotic caps and oversized glasses with their friends for a colorful voting-day keepsake. Ortiz said they offered their services at a discount because they agreed that getting more people to the polls with the #PlaceMakeTheVote effort is vital to the civic health of the community.
“We totally believe in this,” Ortiz said. “This is such great idea to bring more voters, and especially in this neighborhood that’s known for not having a lot of voters.”
Ulaszewski said getting vendors was a challenge because of City Fabrick hopes to stretch their budget through the November, which will also include voter education efforts between then and now. Those that participated, he said, did so because they were invested in the idea of increasing voter turnout.
The turnout during Tuesday’s voting session is sure to be higher, considering that Californians finally had their chance to cast a vote in the polarizing presidential primary that has dominated the news cycle for the better part of the past year. However, it would be hard to discount the effort by City Fabrick, as evidenced by the number of people who showed up to vote at that polling station just because it caught their eye.
Harry Havgitian voted in the first district but had to bring cough drops to a friend who was working at the poll inside the senior center. He sat down on one of the red patio chairs on 4th Street and smoked a cigarette while listening to the music being played from one of the food trucks.
He agreed with Ulaszewski’s idea that this could serve as a model for all polling places, adding that places like this are much needed, now that more people are becoming politically engaged and having dialogues about candidates and political issues.
“A couple years ago, if you were on the streets somewhere, go to Starbucks have a coffee or something, people would talk spots, they would talk different things,” Havgitian said. “Now they’re talking politics, they’re talking about social values and people are engaged politically.”
Too much of that dialogue though could lead to trouble, which is why yesterday’s event was a prototyping exercise for City Fabrick. Electioneering—advocating for certain candidates—is illegal within 100 feet of a polling station and yesterday served as a test run to see if future events might have to be distanced further from the entrance to avoid possible legal issues.
“We want to try not to encourage it,” Ulaszewski said. “That’s one of the things with prototyping, if we found that people were wandering around and getting into arguments about Bernie versus Trump versus who, we might have to pull this installation back a hundred feet to make sure we don’t violate any electioneering laws.”
He did note they discussed the possibility of having a beer garden of sorts at future installments, but it will take the proper venue and safeguards to ensure that alcohol and politics mesh in a legal and politically-safe way. It all comes down to getting people in the space, because when it all boils down, people want to be around other people, regardless if its a park, parklet or polling station. The elements that worked from this installment will probably be replicated and any other ideas thought up by his team could alter potential polling-party sites later this year.
When the November general election hits, the studio plans on expanding their operation to include other parts of the city, with aims at setting up shop in North and Central Long Beach. A surge of voter turnout should be expected as Americans will finally get to choose their next Commander-in-chief. The biggest reward Ulaszewski said he could get is to see people interacting with other people, preferably ones wearing “I Voted” stickers.
“Just the fact that people are smiling after voting and sticking around a little bit and seeing residents talk to other residents…if we could have those sort of lasting relationships happen, I think that would be a great compliment,” he said.