Voting by mail, open meetings, banking: Students help communities with COVID-19 challenges

August 4, 2020
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

When students from the summer Citizen Interaction Design Fellows program began working with Michigan election clerks, they quickly realized they could do more than the project in front of them.

The University of Michigan students who can earn credit for participation in the program were tasked to come up with a way to inform community college and university students ages 18-25 about the expanded option for mail-in balloting. Working with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office, the team conducted research and created a plan to help students better understand how to participate in voting by mail.

As the team interviewed some of the 1,500 township and city clerks across Michigan, they kept hearing the resource challenges offices faced with extraordinarily high demand for mail-in ballots. So the team, using a process pioneered by Nick Sexton and Steve Gerhart from the city of Ann Arbor, added to its list of tasks scaling an auto-response email program that would help make the clerks’ acknowledgement process faster.

“Mail-in balloting is such a Herculean project that is so big and so messy and so difficult and we are just doing our best to make at least one part of it easier for people,” said Cameron Giniel, graduate student in the School of Information.

The team has been testing the automated program in four cities leading up to the primary, with a goal to expand to other cities and townships in time for the general election.

“For me that’s one of the most exciting things as a native Michigander to be able to help equip clerks to build stronger relationships with the community, not just with voters who have been voting historically, but then also with a new generation of voters, those potentially in the 18-25 range, that may expect this sort of service,” said Joshua Tooker, graduate student in business administration and information.

“Now that email automation is available, the added transparency allows voters to have an established connection that hopefully will build trust to further engagement in voting that spans the rest of their lives.”

Led by the School of Information, Citizen Interaction Design pairs students from across the university’s school and colleges with civic leaders to work on enhancing community engagement. Students on nine teams are working this summer on several challenges, many brought about by COVID-19.

The students are assisting cities and townships with how to conduct business during lockdown and after reopening, helping historic and cultural organizations reengage audiences, and encouraging people to get bank accounts so they can avoid predatory fees.

Program instructor Scott TenBrink, civic engagement program manager at the School of Information, said the students have taken the challenge of working remotely with the community groups in stride.

Scott TenBrink

Scott TenBrink

“It was disappointing that students couldn’t be embedded in communities, as we have done in previous years. But the requirement for virtual work is part of the value that UMSI students are delivering,” TenBrink said. “Many of the projects this year are about how to respond to social distancing, and the students’ experience reflects that. Our core goal remains to think about civic challenges from a new perspective.”

It was disappointing that students couldn’t be embedded in communities, as we have done in previous years. But the requirement for virtual work is part of the value that UMSI students are delivering

Scott TenBrink

One team continued work started in Lansing right after the lockdown to encourage residents to sign up for bank accounts to avoid excessive fees charged by various check cashing services.

UMSI got involved in March, putting out a challenge at the school for creative suggestions to encourage banking just before the stimulus checks were issued. Students in the current class continued to work this summer with the BankOn program to help encourage some of the nearly 7% of U.S. households (28% in Lansing) without a checking or savings account to open one or the other.

Without a bank, people must take paychecks or stimulus checks to alternate financial services like grocery stores, check cashers, payday lenders and pawn shops, that often charge heavy fees.

Cullen Smith, master of information student, was supposed to have an internship at Carhartt this summer but said COVID-19 “threw him for a loop.” Instead he worked with CID on the BankOn program and another involved with an area of repeated flooding in Lansing.

“It was really a good way for us to see where we can actually help, and engage in two awesome programs that have the best interest of residents at heart,” Smith said.

As various city and township boards faced state COVID-19 restrictions, leaders grappled with how to conduct business safely while keeping within the law. One main concern was following the Open Meetings Act. Getting the bills paid and keeping municipalities moving requires elected and appointed officials to be able to meet in public.

Under an executive order issued for the pandemic, public bodies temporarily were allowed to use alternatives to in-person meetings in order to satisfy health requirements for social distancing and avoid gatherings of too many people.

One student group is working with the Michigan Township Association to assess those alternatives and to find out how equipped cities and townships were to host virtual meetings for the short run and what place technology might play for public meetings post-COVID-19 restrictions.

“They (townships) definitely see this as a way going forward, not only for coronavirus but for bad weather. It could boost attendance and participation, maybe seasonally,” said Michael Payne, master’s student in UX research and design at the School of Information.

The team benefited from having Ford School of Public Policy and School of Information students addressing this issue. In addition to analyzing the law from a policy perspective and creating a reference guide for the possibility of moving forward with virtual meetings under the act, the students conducted surveys to find out about technological capabilities for compliance.

In their survey, which yielded 283 responses, they found 60% of townships had conducted Zoom meetings or used an audio service to hold a meeting during the pandemic. Not all of the feedback was positive about the remote meeting experience, however, as township leaders reported spotty internet or cell service, noise concerns and general conference issues.

Students also found up to 15% of communities have broadband issues that would need to be addressed before Zoom or a similar service could replace meetings, but they found other lower-tech conference options could be considered.

The team suggests a hybrid in-person and virtual meeting could be possible. Such an offering could help boost community engagement, said Ford School student Lindsey Dowswell.

“The people in the leadership roles in the townships want to engage with the public,” she said. “They do so much work for these meetings and there are important decisions happening, and they’re a little bit discouraged sometimes when the public doesn’t seem to be that involved. So, I think most of them were excited to see additional people showing up (online).”

Spurring public engagement is at the heart of several other summer projects involving historical and cultural attractions in the southeast Michigan area. Even before COVID-19, the Detroit Historical Museum, Carr Center and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History were thinking about how they could reach existing audiences in new ways and find new friends for their organizations. Student groups from CID are working with all three.

Students Alison Summerford and Gina Spelman both represent the demographic the Wright Museum is missing—millennials. The age range that is moving into Detroit in great numbers in recent years is not really visiting the 122,000 square-foot museum, the largest of its kind, located in the heart of Midtown Detroit. The museum’s primary audiences are older adults and school-age children.

“Like our target demographic, prior to the project I was unaware about the museum. So, I’m excited to assist in creating more awareness about what the Wright Museum has to offer to other millennials,” said Spelman, a School of Information UX design master’s student from Ann Arbor.

She said she felt a little disadvantaged in the beginning not to be able to go and see the place her project was about because of COVID-19, but said she looked forward to getting there soon.

She and Summerford, also a UX design master’s student who had not visited the museum, conducted a survey of Detroit millennials. They used the data to create an affinity wall (which organizes the data and ideas around it), a journey map (description of how users interact with a service) and personas to help inform recommendations for the museum.

“I wanted to see how UX design could be used to solve a problem in the community and this has given me the opportunity,” Summerford said.