Fake news. Dishonest media. Terms like these inspire skepticism about the accuracy of information and the integrity of sources. As the 2020 election rapidly approaches, uncertainty about what is true and what is not can leave voters unsure of what the implications of their yes or no vote might be.
Enter the Rose Institute of State and Local Government’s Video Voter project. A nonpartisan research institution based at Claremont McKenna College, the Rose Institute works to educate voters about local and state initiatives. Its Video Voter project is one such initiative that consists of a series of videos that present objective information about California’s ballot propositions.
“A lot of voters are hungry for objective, understandable information. The ballot pamphlet itself can be helpful, but it’s a little bit dense.” — Ken Miller PO ’85
“A lot of voters are hungry for objective, understandable information. The ballot pamphlet itself can be helpful, but it’s a little bit dense. These brief videos summarizing the measure, giving the pro and con arguments and showing who is for it and against it is really a helpful way that a voter can get, in a relatively short amount of time, basic information,” Ken Miller PO ’85, associate director of the Rose Institute and associate professor of government at CMC, said.
The idea for the short, nonpartisan videos was student conceived, and the project has remained driven by students ever since. The first iteration of the Institute’s Video Voter Series was published in 2014, and new videos addressing current propositions have been published for every following election.
The creation process of the videos starts with research. Student staffers decide which issues they want to focus on and work with Rose Institute faculty to understand California’s ballot initiative process and all sides of their specific issue. From there, their time is spent writing and revising a script before finally recording the actual video.
From the first meeting to the final publication of the series, the time frame is typically from early August to early October in order to reach as many voters as possible before Election Day. However, the 2020 production process was not and could not be a direct replicate of previous years.
“Because voting was a lot earlier in California, and every other state, but especially California, ballots went out sooner and people were making their decisions sooner, so we had to change a lot about our rollout schedule,” said Rose Institute Communications Manager Nathan Tran PO ’23.
In addition to a push to publish the videos sooner, the team had other limits in place. The remote semester pushed the Institute all online, meaning that all communication had to occur over email, Zoom or text between the eight student staffers who appear in the videos from five different states. While the research process was able to remain similar, students were called on to manage all aspects of the filming process from their homes. A videographer worked with students to find optimal lighting background and sound quality, but students had to ultimately film the videos individually.
“Most of us, including myself, didn’t have our own tripods or anything, so I stacked my phone on top of a small mountain of books,” Tran said. “Other teammates used board games as well, but I just used a bunch of old textbooks that I borrowed from my brother-in-law and I just built it so that my phone would be eye-level.”
This visual inconsistency of this remote setting with past Video Voter Series, which were all filmed on CMC’s campus, will serve as a type of time capsule within the greater archive.
“This will be the year when the videos will show that we were in the middle of a pandemic when these campaigns were going on and these ballot measures were being voted on because the students working on the analysis of the videos were all at home rather than being on campus,” Miller said.
As distrust of bias in the media has increased, the consequential push for nonpartisan and objective information has as well, leading to projects similar to Video Voter from other sources aiming to accomplish the same goal. However, Miller explained that, in his opinion, the Rose Institute stands out.
“This is the one source that is really professional at this level [that] is done by students,” Miller said. “I think that’s really refreshing, that this group of students at the Rose Institute has this level of commitment to learn these issues and to present really excellent, high-quality videos that provide voters with terrific information on these complex measures. For undergraduates, having that level of professionalism is really a distinctive quality of what we are doing at the Rose Institute.”
Videos similar to those of the Institute’s can be found on media sources such as the Los Angeles Times and CalMatters. Yet amid these real world competitors, Miller is also confident that Video Voter is superior.
“We were at the front end of this several election cycles ago, and now it’s becoming more common, I would say, for other organizations out there,” Miller said. “We still think that ours is a superior project. Theirs tend to be even shorter than ours, like a minute long, and they condense the information to such a degree that we don’t think they provide sufficient information.”
“I hope that voters are using these videos to look at the issue objectively and take what they get from these videos to do their own research” — Katherine Adelman CM ’21
Though the Institute’s videos may be slightly longer than those of other organizations, student staffers also stress that their videos still act as a very broad overview meant to introduce voters to a topic and prompt further research. In a time frame of around two minutes, there is only so much information that can fit.
“I hope that voters are using these videos to look at the issue objectively and take what they get from these videos to do their own research, because there are a lot of arguments that we don’t get to go into in detail. That way they can use their critical thinking and critical reasoning abilities to look at these in terms of their own political ideologies,” student staffer Katherine Adelman CM ’21 said.
And as the election quickly approaches, these students staffers at the Institute are hopeful that voters know that even in the midst of a pandemic, they can trust the Institute to continue to fulfill its ultimate mission to provide objective and factual information. In some cases, staffers are even doing their own promotion, working with one voter at a time to spread the word.
“A lot of our work has to do with simplifying the complex and simplifying the critical issues, and Video Voter is the epitome of that,” Tran said.
To find the the Rose Institute’s 2020 Video Voter Series, head to their website.