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Voters wait in line to cast ballots while ignoring a stay-at-home order to vote in Milwaukee in April. AP Photo/Morry Gash

Voting In A Pandemic: Groups Turn To Hollywood To Make Sense Of A Most Unusual Year

In the weeks after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, Tina Fey spoke to a Hollywood event and told the audience the real reason that Hillary Clinton lost: “Not enough celebrity music videos urging people to vote.”

Fey was being sarcastic and flippant, but she referring to what flooded social media in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Celebrities dispatched an array of earnest and humorous videos designed to get out the vote.

The same is happening this year, but the tone of the videos is a bit different. The irreverence is still there, but so is an undercurrent of anxiety and urgency.

On Wednesday, ATTN: released a video featuring former President Barack Obama that was laced with quips, but also a step-by-step guide to explain potential confusion, particularly over mail-in voting.

Meanwhile, progressives have been waging an ongoing battle to combat what they see as voter suppression.

LeBron JamesMore Than A Vote campaign is not only focused on registration, but on combating voter suppression by converting sports facilities and other large venues into voter precincts, and another effort to counter misinformation about the electoral process.

During the Democratic National Convention, filmmaker David Modigliani debuted Dress Rehearsal, a documentary short that focused on how progressive groups in Wisconsin successfully mobilized in a state election in April, when a liberal challenger beat a conservative incumbent for a state Supreme Court seat.

The movie isn’t so much a get-out-the-vote video as it is a how-to during COVID-19. It showed how activists turned to digital organizing and a mail-in voting campaign to boost turnout, after Republicans moved to block efforts to extend absentee ballot deadlines.

“This shows that the hard work of organizing can pay off in special ways,” Modigliani said in a recent interview, adding that the movie is serving as “a little dose of motivation” for how to boost turnout amid COVID-19.

“Under normal circumstances, 4 million progressives would volunteer for canvassing,” he said. “During the pandemic, we are at risk of losing all of those folks. We thought, ‘What is the story we can tell to inspire them to action?’ “

His movie focuses on “relationship organizing” rather than door knocking, and the Wisconsin activists who turned to reaching out to their own networks of friends and family.

That’s not to say that there are not challenges. Groups are now grappling with reaching younger voters, particularly those on college campuses that have gone to virtual instruction, while there is a complication of voting by mail and needing a witness to also sign the ballot envelope.

“That’s a reason to build strong relationships with voters so they can withstand changing information during an election cycle,” said Modigliani, whose projects also include Running With Beto and 61 Bullets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced voter registration efforts to go digital, increasing the need for content that draws attention.

The civic participation group HeadCount switched to an all-digital approach this cycle, with their campaigns including one launched with Global Citizen called Just Vote, with the goal of engaging 1 million young voters and registering 50,000.

Celebrities are attached to the effort, offering various kinds of unique enticements. For example, once a young voter checks his or her registration status, they can get access to such things as a virtual dance lesson with Usher and his choreographer or a virtual get-together with DJ Khaled.

This week, in a HeadCount campaign called GoodToVote, Samuel L. Jackson posted a video in which he said that those who took action to vote would get access to a video in which he would teach them to swear in 15 different languages. 

HeadCount also has been working with streaming platform LiveXLive to incorporate registration messaging, and they have launched a Festival Challenge to offer a change to win VIP tickets to music festivals.

When We All Vote, the voting organization launched by former First Lady Michelle Obama, earlier this week teamed with ATTN: for an ABC comedy special, VOMO: Vote or Miss Out, hosted by Kevin Hart. It drew 3 million viewers in Live+Same Data, according to Nielsen. More initiatives are in the works.

Vomo
ABC and ATTN:’s “VOMO: Vote Or Miss Out” Screenshot via Twitter/ATTN, ABC

So are these entertainment-fueled efforts effective? Donald P. Green, professor of political science at Columbia University, said that there is not much empirical data to gauge such messaging. In the last cycle, he noted, the number of humorous, quirky and snarky get-out-the-vote videos became “sort of an art form in its own right,” but the audience may well have been those who already are politically aware and active.

Still, he said, when it comes to whether a figure like James would reach a low-propensity voter, “at least it is plausible that these messages would resonate.”

The challenge of get-out-the-vote projects are not just in finding an effective message to break through amid COVID-19, but in the actual production of the content.

Modigiani and his crew took a number of precautions in the making of Dress Rehearsal, including social distancing and mask wearing. Many interviews were done outside, and he did some remotely by Interrotron, which allows a director’s face to appear on the lens as they are talking to a subject.

“It actually gave me a deeper appreciation of the way that political organizers on the ground have learned to innovate on the fly for these new conditions,” he said.

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