The paper could send a clear message about the importance of voting

On August 22, 2018, the Ithaca Times, a small newspaper in upstate New York, printed a voter registration form on the cover of the paper. The Commons’ Emma Coleman looked into how this happened, and how other local papers can take on the task of keeping their readership civically engaged.

As autumn sweeps into Ithaca, it brings more than the orange and yellow leaves that are a trademark of upstate New York in the fall— it also carries with it a wave of students descending on Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland, the county’s community college. While the arrival of these students breathes life into the college town, it also sparks the yearly question of how to engage young people in politics, particularly at a time when they may have recently earned the right to vote or moved away from the place they voted before.

For Marshall Hopkins, production director of the free alt-weekly newspaper the Ithaca Times, this question came at the same time as another constant, albeit more regular, question: what should go on the front page of the newspaper? Each week, Marshall designs the cover, and places one image that directly ties with the cover story. In mid-August through September, the newspaper runs print issues that are double the typical size and serve as guides for new students, as well as newcomers to Ithaca. At the same time that Marshall was thinking about the cover for the August 22nd “2018 Student Survival Guide,” he heard that people were organizing voter registration drives for new students, and he wanted to help.

“It came as an epiphany,” he remembers. “I usually spend all of Sunday worrying about the cover image. It’s normally something beautiful or eye-grabbing. But every once in a while, we do something that breaks the mold and isn’t really focused on aesthetics, and those stand out more because they’re so undesigned.” He got on his phone, and pulled up the browser to see if his idea was possible.

Can you put a voter registration form on the cover of a newspaper?, he wondered. The answer was yes. He was quickly able to locate a downloadable PDF of the form on the website of the New York State Board of Elections, and brought it to the managing editor of the paper. They contacted the Board of Elections to see if they would accept registrations completed on newsprint. The publisher and the owner of the paper signed off on the idea. Everyone was excited.

The logistics of this were fairly simple— the form fit neatly within the confines of the space, with space on the side to include a note that this was, in fact, fully functional. “I didn’t want this to be symbolic,” says Marshall. “From the beginning, I wanted this to be a real thing that people could cut out and use to register.” The back of the form included instructions for how to fill it out and where to mail it when you were done. The form could be especially useful for college students, because, while New York does allow online voter registration, the online process requires a New York driver’s license, which many students in the area don’t have. When registering by mail, the restrictions are less stringent.

Marshall’s hope was that printing the form would have the same impact that voter registration drives on the college campuses had. Just as anyone who happened to walk by a voter registration table on campus could register to vote, anyone who happened to see the paper throughout the week could fill out the form. By placing it on the front cover, Marshall notes, “the paper could send a clear message about the importance of voting.”

When the paper went to print, Marshall and the rest of the Ithaca Times staff waited for the response. To their excitement, it was overwhelmingly positive. The Mayor of Ithaca, Svante Myrick, tweeted “The @ithacatimes made their front page a fully functional voter registration form. Take note, every newspaper and magazine in America.” The Center for Civic Design took note, and issued a call to action for newspapers across the country to follow suit on September 25, national voter registration day. The Washington Post published an op-ed asking for the same thing.

While the cover gained notice nationwide, the response where it mattered most— in Ithaca— was equally positive. Within a day, the Tompkins County Board of Elections office received its first form mailed in on newsprint. Some people were putting it in envelopes, with others simply cutting it out, folding it, and placing a stamp on it before dropping it in the mailbox. Though there aren’t conclusive numbers on how many registrations emerged directly from the cover, the exposure to their readership of almost 60,000 in a town of just over 100,000 means a lot. Ithaca’s voter turnout during midterms has been declining in recent years, and this high-profile effort could help reverse that trend.

When people ask why an initiative like this is necessary, Marshall has a short answer: “I have a friend who lives near Cornell, and he told me his polling place is always deserted, no matter the election.” In the 2014 midterms, 26,432 people voted in Tompkins County, which includes Ithaca. The race, which elected the governor, state senators and assembly-people, and Congressional Representatives, saw a county turnout rate of 25%, about 11 points lower than the national average that year. “People are busy,” Marshall explains. It’s not easy to take the time to learn about voter registration, wade through the restrictions, and then get informed enough to place an educated vote.

This was a nonpartisan gesture to help the community by eliminating some of the steps that often prevent people from voting. Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections salutes this effort. “It’s great that the Ithaca Times has taken this bold initiative to highlight the importance of registering to vote, especially as we approach this year’s deadline.”

But Marshall hopes that this effort spreads far beyond New York. “This is absolutely scalable,” he notes, “especially for local papers that can adhere to the voter restrictions in their area.” So, take note, every newspaper and magazine in America. This is how you make an impact.

Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.