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Fake It Till You Make It: How We Started National Voter Registration Day

Since early 2011, a bunch of us have been wrestling with a basic question: How do you start a holiday? And by holiday, I mean a holiday that...

Since early 2011, a bunch of us have been wrestling with a basic question: How do you start a holiday? And by holiday, I mean a holiday that doesn’t suck (looking at you Ask a Stupid Question Day).

It was around that time that we brainstormed new ideas to get lots of people registered to vote for the 2012 election and we cooked up the idea of National Voter Registration Day. Registering voters is a priority for us because—as trite as it sounds—voting is the basic way that government hears our voices, and confusion over the registration process is one of the largest barriers to participation. In 2008, one of the biggest years for voter registration in history, the US Census estimates that 6 million eligible Americans didn’t vote because they missed a voter registration deadline or were unsure how to register. Millions more didn’t vote because of registration errors.

It turns out that in the 21st century, when you can do just about anything online (and I do mean anything), our voter registration system is governed by 50 different sets of laws, regulations, and forms. Deadlines vary from locale to locale. There are roughly 3,000 different counties, each with different offices where forms are returned. In the information age, the best method most of us have of getting the word out about impending deadlines is trying to mob the streets with dozens people carrying clipboards.

Enter National Voter Registration Day. We thought a giant day of action could move new volunteers and new organizations into the effort, while providing artists, media, and individual Americans a great excuse to leverage traditional outlets and newer media like Tumblr and Facebook to push people to get registered.

We’re on track for one of the biggest single-day registration drives of all time. Even better, we’ll help educate millions of Americans on how to get involved with enough time to get it done before those deadlines kick in.

I know what you're thinking. You want us to open our playbook. You want to hear how to make your own brainchild go big? You’re wondering, how do I get Scare a Weasel Day to be the next, next big thing? Well, here are a few lessons learned:

First, pick a single day. Baseball may be America's past time, but there's nothing bigger than the Super Bowl because football has the good sense to settle its biggest dispute in a single game. When we started talking about a National Voter Registration Day, we got some advice to think about a week or a month instead. Turns out there already is a National Voter Registration Month. It's September. And that's cool, but it spreads the activity out over 30 days. Especially when engaging people who haven’t historically run voter registration drives, we wanted to start with an easier ask: just one day.

Second, no one owns a holiday. But anyone can take advantage of one. So give up control and give up credit. Just ask Hallmark and 1-800-FLOWERS (who make a killing off of Thanksgiving). This approach is a good thing in many ways. There's over 1,000 organizations doing their own things for National Voter Registration Day, operating on a scale that we could never manage directly. But it can be scary or uncomfortable to watch your brainchild evolve. The founder of Mother's Day watched the holiday she created to honor her own mother turn into a commercialized celebration. Our advice? Embrace this upfront. If you don’t have expectations, you can’t be disappointed.

Third, traditions matter. Holidays start as ideas, but they become traditions, largely around activities. Fireworks on the Fourth of July, the airing of grievances on Festivus, trapping Leprechauns on St. Patrick's Day. These are the things of which memories are made. What are the big National Voter Registration Day traditions? Glad you asked!

  • Register to vote if you haven't already.
  • Re-enact Teddy Roosevelt's famous Oh shit! “I’ve been shot” speech.
  • Grab a clipboard and volunteer at one of the hundreds of voter registration events going on around the country. Or if you're slightly lazier, at least update your Facebook status to encourage others to register! (should turn this last bit into a link of some sort)
  • Dress as Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty and go to TGIFriday's for their delicious ... food.
  • Attend the annual Voter Registration Day pen toss on the White House east lawn.
  • \n

Finally, fake it til you make it. It's taken a little work to convince people to plan for a holiday that's never been celebrated, but we pursued partners rather than official holiday status because while government recognition matters, holidays are decided by culture. The Illinois Legislature didn't create Casimir Pulaski Day. We built that.

We’ve learned one other big thing over the past two years. Even as politics inevitably takes its nasty turns, Americans are absolutely in love with their democracy. The story of our country, from the founding fathers to the suffrage movement to the civil rights battles and freedom summer, is largely the story of the right to vote being taken by those to whom it had previously been denied.

We owe it to ourselves, to those who came before us, and to each other, to vote. We also owe it to ourselves to have some fun while we do it.

Matt Singer is executive director of the Bus Federation Civic Fund and one of the people who started National Voter Registration Day.

Image (cc) flickr user Kheel Center, Cornel University

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