2020 is poised to be the most important election of our lifetime, and it’s happening during a pandemic—taking the normal tools of stump speeches, rallies, and voter registration drives out of the mix. But where those analog traditions have gone by the wayside, new digital ones are taking their place.
The national conventions were basically glorified Zoom meetings. Teens organized on TikTok to tank Trump’s Tulsa rally. And now, Snap has shared with Fast Company that its app Snapchat has already registered more than 750,000 people to vote—twice the amount of users it registered during all of 2018. The company registered half a million users in the last week alone. That’s particularly important when it comes to courting the ever-elusive youth vote, as Snapchat reaches more 13-24 year olds in the U.S. than Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger combined.
Along with the news, Snap is launching a new lens (the official name for its addictive selfie filters) created by Mark Bradford, one of the most celebrated contemporary artists in the world, who is known for his distressed, mixed media compositions.
While Bradford was in low key discussions to work with Snap for some time, he admits that before this specific collaboration, he actually didn’t know exactly what Snapchat’s lenses were or how they worked. “I’m not one of those people who try to be cooler than I am. If I don’t know something I say it,” he laughs. “I didn’t really know what a [lens] was. I think I learned two days ago.”
What ultimately got him involved wasn’t money. The work was pro bono. Instead, he recognized the profound stakes of this particular election and wanted to take part. “I go in and out of national conversations,” he says. “I think [promoting voting] is very important, and I wanted to do it right now, and I wanted to do it in a medium that young people use. I didn’t want to impose another way onto young people, I wanted to use the tools they use to get to this. Something familiar.”
To make the filter, which counts down the days to register to vote behind someone’s head, Bradford created the numbers on paper, carefully cutting them out and photographing his work. Then the Snap team imported them, tweaking the final effect to his liking. (An early version was more subtle, with smaller numbers. “I wanted a little pop to it,” he says. “Like a brighter shoelace.”)
When Snapchatters take a selfie with the filter, they can share the image with friends—and that image will actually link them to a voter registration page in the app. This friend-to-friend sharing, critical to Snap’s particular flavor of social media, is a big reason why Snap believes its tool has been so effective. Snap first ran voter registration drives in 2016, with more typical celebrity PSAs. Then it built registration tools into Snapchat in 2018.
“You can’t just ask somebody to register to vote one time,” says Snap Public Policy Manager Sofia Gross, who helped spearhead the voting initiative. “You have to really make sure you’re following up and chasing people to have them follow through.” In 2020, not only did Snap expand the voting sections of its app (adding regionally specific sample ballots for its users to study, so that they aren’t surprised on voting day), it began asking all of its users who were turning 18 to register on their birthdays.
In 2018, Snap registered 425,000 people to vote, and in a follow-up study, Snap confirmed that 57% of those users reported that they actually voted. “We’re not just stopping at voter registration. From a product standpoint, it’s thinking through the entire voting experience,” says Gross.
While Snap’s registration figures are up, the company’s success does appear to be part of a larger trend, in which people are registering to vote through the social apps they use every day. Just yesterday, Facebook announced it helped register an estimated 2.5 million people through Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger (which is already up from the 2 million people the company registered in 2016) with a goal of registering 4 million people in all.
“A lot of tools designed to register voters were designed for a different generation,” says Gross.