How might we make voting like a holiday? A celebration?

Challenge: Organize to fight the efficacy of voter suppression practices across the United States
POV: Marginalized voter who is unable to vote or has their vote discounted through a number of methods (explored in interviews and background research)
Amp up the good: HMW harness the voters’ own energy and desire to participate in politics to fight suppression politics?
Remove the bad: HMW make sure people have equal access to voting and that all votes are counted equally
Explore the opposite: HMW make voting the easiest part of political participation?
Question an assumption: HMW entirely remove the in-person voting and obscure counting process?
Go after adjectives: HMW make voting fun instead of arduous and obscure?
ID unexpected resources: HMW make use of extant national information-keeping/data entry/data regulation systems to streamline this process?
Create an analogy from need or context: HMW make voting like a holiday? A celebration?
Play against the challenge: HMW make voting something that people want to do, and/or make counting everyone’s vote something that works in everyone’s interest?
Change a status quo: HMW make voting less difficult and inaccessible for marginalized people?
Break POV into pieces: HMW improve the conditions of people whose votes are suppressed and give them the material / social conditions to fight their oppression? HMW make voting more accessible? HMW make sure all votes are counted?

I will choose the most straightforward HMW, “HMW make voting less difficult and inaccessible for marginalized people?” as my main guiding HMW question, but my 10 divergent ideas for addressing this statement spawn from the ideation process for all of these different HMW statements. 1) Encourage absentee ballot voting. 2) Create a user-friendly website breaking down legal terminology and centralize information about voting rights and proper procedures to remember in each locality (source this information from local activists and update regularly with new info; crowdsourced database but presented in a way that is accessible to everyone). 3) Campaign to make election day a holiday. 4) Leverage current information-keeping systems to capture more voters; e.g. register voters whenever they visit the DMV to get a drivers’ license or apply for a passport or go for a doctor’s appointment; have information about registration expiry timelines on display. This would both make sure more people have access to registration by integrating it with other parts of their lives and making it so that people do not have to go out of their way to access registration or voting, as well as help to effect a cultural shift towards voting being a normal and expected part of every citizen’s life. 5) Employ nonpartisan, legally-trained clowns as poll watchers. 6) Donate directly to grassroots organizations like Four Directions and have those resources be redistributed to Native tribes in order to pay people within tribes to get trained so that knowledge can be a lasting part of the community. 7) Legal change: Institute a government position that consists of independent voting trainers that can be overseen by the secretary of state who provide training to poll workers or poll judges — again, nonpartisan! 8) Implement tracking numbers for absentee ballots so people can see where they went and what happened to them, working in conjunction with the idea to encourage absentee voting to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that in-person voting practices are susceptible to. 9) Work with community organizations like churches and community centers to help them create and publicize transportation and resource distribution during election seasons. 10) Institute a mandatory maximum wait time for election day and a mandatory minimum polling center per population per unit area policy across the U.S. (inspired by the international IDEO design card).

Mitigation Strategy

One major consequence or potential catastrophe of the anti-voter-suppression strategy of encouraging absentee ballot voting for people who might face a lot of the structural issues presented by in-person voting (long lines because of understaffed locations or lack of poll locations at all, faulty machines, limited early voting locations, lack of transportation) is that there is the potential for a huge number of these votes to get rejected as has happened many times in previous elections (where absentee ballots get ignored because they were sent in too late or the signature didn’t match — see here for some common reasons that absentee votes get suppressed). Although absentee voting would help avoid a lot of physical voter suppression tactics, we start to rely heavily on the chain of events that allows an absentee ballot to be counted. My mitigation strategy is to examine each of the steps that an absentee ballot goes through in its life cycle, from printing to filling out to actually getting counted, and use this flowchart to list out all of the potential breaking points where a vote could be suppressed. Then I would like to use this flowchart to create an informational website that people can access or create print materials from (to distribute to their communities) that addresses and might help people avoid the pitfalls at each step, and have all this information in a unified place. The base information for this site is something that I’m hoping to include in my design portfolio based off my interviews (for example, an eye-opening interview that mentioned how mail-in ballots could be suppressed by domestic power dynamics between wives with overbearing husbands).

The unruly and strange administration

The faraway land of the Unruly and Strange Administration (U.S.A) had long been known amongst the members of its galaxy for its unruly and strange administrative policies. 5000 years ago, a senile but well-loved ruler of the nation took it upon himself to rewrite the constitutional laws that had governed his country for millennia. Inspired by the ancient Broadway show Hamilton, he decided to institute his own system of voting democracy in his country. “Our nation will be the freest democracy that has ever lived!”, he declared. Due to his professed enthusiasm for fun and enjoyment, he decided that all parties should be led by people who were popular and could put on a good comedic show for his citizens when the nation was met with dire situations like famine or the mythical economic recession of 2008. What better way was there to make sure his citizens were happy, he thought, than to ensure that the leader of the U.S.A. would always be a professional jokester — a clown, one might say? He knew that a good leader needed to be able to make his people laugh. Upon feebly muttering the words “democracy”, “clown”, and “none of this will affect me anyways” to his scribe, the old ruler rolled over and died.

The people of the U.S.A. were devastated by this turn of events and saw to it that their beloved ruler would go down in history, and that nothing he said would ever be questioned or rewritten. For centuries, they continued to elect the sons and grandsons of their beloved old ruler, priding themselves on not only their individual loyalty but the loyalty of the entire nation to the legacy of this man who had changed their lives. With each generation, the sons became funnier and funnier, coming up with innovative and fresh jokes such as “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Knock knock, who’s there?”. To compensate for the lengthy time they spent laughing at their leaders’ jokes, the citizens of the U.S.A. worked harder and harder each day during their working hours to make sure they could support their families as well as the national leader’s comedic pursuits. The U.S.A made a name for itself as one that upheld its original naming, and the other leaders of the galactic planets looked on with equal amounts of amusement and bewilderment.

However, this happy state could not last forever, and slowly the sons of the original leader of the U.S.A became less popular with the citizens of the country due to the strange and whimsical policies the leaders were implementing. The streets started to become filled with whisperings of the possibility of electing new leaders. Young people with big dreams started to get a twinkle in their eyes, thinking that maybe they too could train for a career in comedy and government and become head of the freest democracy in the galaxy. When the administration heard these rumblings of revolt, they knew they had to do everything they could in the two years before the next election to stay in power. After all, every leader in the nation’s history had maintained power until they retired from old age. It would be unforgivably embarrassing for the current leader to lose power due to a vote.

When it came time for the election, the administration was ready to make sure nothing would go wrong. Of course, they loved democracy and giving everyone a chance to vote. The only thing they were doing was making sure that some people had an easier time than others voting — but no one was being actively stopped. They purchased new high-tech voting machines that only listed one ballot option until the user entered a secret password. They instituted a new policy where voters had to pay $5 to unlock other candidate options once those options were revealed. And in exchange for signing lifetime contract working overtime shifts in government administration, voters could purchase a lifetime option to vote for other candidates. “We believe in fairness and democracy,” the leaders said. “We just believe that you have to work hard to get the things you love.”

With every subsequent election, the leaders implemented new measures to keep their family in power. The results of the elections always turned out to be 51%-49% in their favor, forcing them to stay on their toes to think of new creative solutions to their problem. When voters in certain areas all decided to combine forces and vote against the leadership, they built 10ft high walls in their neighborhoods to split them up and group them with status quo supporters. They also made sure to monitor when their dissidents were busy working and only opened the polls at that time. Sometimes all of this still didn’t work out in their favor, so the leadership decided to throw these particularly annoying people in prison instead.

The people finally decided to put their feet down and create a project to stop this from happening. They phoned and interviewed people who had been trying to stop all of this voter suppression from happening for centuries and learned from their advice. They decided that they needed to split up their forces because the country was simply too big for all of them to tackle at once, and they needed to reach as many citizens and legislators as possible. After they split up, they started getting to work. In each of their individual communities, the organizers started hosting sessions in community centers where they distributed new and easily accessible ID cards to dissident voters, and they introduced ballots to try to get some of the millions of dissidents who had been locked up out of prison.

The ID card programs were extremely successful and the voter registration rate grew tremendously, setting a new record of citizen engagement that had never been seen again since the passing of the original ruler of the U.S.A. But close to the presidential election day, the organizers woke up to terrible news. They had mistyped one of the names on the ID cards, and the administration had quickly snatched up the misprinted card and spread its photo as well as the names of the organizers across the entire galaxy. “They are trying to ruin democracy,” the leaders said. The organizers were called fraudsters and decried for attempting to create a legion of voters using fake IDs to overturn the government. They were named enemies of democracy and all the ballots that they had worked hard to introduce in their communities were annulled immediately.

Perhaps the worst outcome of it all was that everyone who had signed petitions to get the ballots to be passed and every single citizen who had registered for an ID card through the organizers’ community sessions was immediately identifiable by the leadership as potential dissidents. People who did not already have access to ID cards before the programs were generally poor and enemies of the leadership, so it was easy for administrators to make this kind of distinction. All organizers and voters who had been exposed as enemies of democracy were thrown in prison and put to work there to revitalize the economy and teach them a lesson about trying to obstruct the will of the people.

“It’s all just a big joke,” said the president. “Those people didn’t matter anyways.” He pointed to the incredible economic growth that had happened since prison labor had begun to be used to produce basic necessities. All the remaining citizens laughed along at the unruly and strange way that their beloved president had managed to save the day again.

Voter Suppression and Disenfranchisement

The topic I want to work on for the rest of the semester is voter disenfranchisement / voter suppression in the United States. While voting often seems like an ineffectual way of making change, I think it’s important to explore who is actively being blocked from voting. This is a topic that affects a lot of marginalized, underserved, and oppressed communities whose livelihoods can often be directly and negatively impacted by legislations or policies passed without them being able to exercise their voting rights on them. For example, disenfranchisement of incarcerated people in most states in the U.S. (all excluding Maine and Vermont) means that they would not be able to vote for candidates that are pushing justice system policies that directly impact their livelihood and well-being in positive or negative ways. In 35 states, people on parole are also excluded from voting, and in 31 of these states people on probation are excluded from voting as well ( Combined with the fact that mass incarceration overwhelmingly affects Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous communities, we see a significant population in the U.S. being systematically deprived of their ability to exercise democratic rights. Some other communities that are affected by voter suppression include low-income communities who are not able to afford transportation to voting booths, indigenous communities (for example in North Dakota with the recent Supreme Court decision to only allow people with residential addresses register to vote:, and numerous other people and communities who identities often overlap and intersect with each other to become targets of voter suppression.

There are a number of things that have been done in this area already by groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, who worked on training poll watchers to not partake in voter intimidation, or Patriot Majority USA who ran voter registration drives in 2016 (“In 2016, Patriot Majority USA funded a successful voter registration drive in Indiana, empowering tens-of-thousands of African-American voters despite state-sanctioned harassment by officials appointed or closely aligned with then-Governor Mike Pence”). Heading into this midterm election, I’ve seen a lot of social media entities like Instagram and Facebook putting in notifications to users to remind them to vote. And a lot of community organizations, from non-profits to student orgs, are canvassing and asking people to register to vote ahead of the election. For this project I would like to investigate further the means through which voter suppression and disenfranchisement happens in the U.S. and design a convening to think about ways to combat it, especially when disenfranchisement strategies are implemented in systematic and seemingly unbeatable ways (e.g. restrictions on voter ID qualifications).

Power and service at elite institutions gathering


  1. We recognize our position.
    These gatherings will center on where we can go and what we can do in the world as students at elite universities, which is a position that we strive to recognize and deal with as it relates to a number of other positions of power that each of us occupy along various axes of privilege. We consider all of these positions and what kind of consequences and meanings they have for us and for our communities, using those reflections to guide and ground our work.
  2. We are community-oriented.
    We look towards the guidance of our communities both within and especially outside of the university to design actions and solutions that actually work to serve people in a grounded, informed, and effective way. We recognize that student activism must be connected with and on equal footing with the communities that we occupy and often gentrify.
  3. We are inclusive, intersectional, and non-hierarchical.
    We want to design for justice and equity across race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and all other kinds of backgrounds. In order to stay true to this mission, we will make sure to echo these ideals in our own practice, centering voices that should be heard
  4. We are action driven.
    We want to equip students with ideas and tools to go forward into the world and work towards making the positive impact that they want to. Because of this, we want to know: what can we do concretely for our communities, for the world? We work towards developing action rather than despair.
  5. We are realistic and authentic.
    While we remain committed to a better vision of the world, are realistic about what methods we have for change and our capacity to execute them. We are humble and curious and always thinking about what we can do to live in a way that aligns with our values and politics as a group.

In the wake of recent political events, but also in general, I’ve been feeling very helpless about what methods I have and what effects I can have on making the world a more equitable place for everyone. I often see popular memes in elite university meme groups about people having anti-capitalist or otherwise broadly social justice-oriented politics, but ending up going into consulting or finance despite that. Responses to these memes include pointing out the potential hypocrisy of criticizing students who choose to go into the private sector by people who want to remain in academia (corporate-funded!) or even go into the non-profit sector (beg for corporations’ spending money!). In general, I feel like a lot of people share my sense of being lost about what paths we have going forward from university, especially elite universities like Harvard or MIT where the allure of high-paying finance or tech jobs is almost inescapable.

This event that I want to plan would be like a hackathon, except not called a hackathon so that I can disassociate it from hackathon stereotypes like staying up late and devising solutions to huge societal problems in 24-48 hours. It is held in the new student center on campus and we would make a specific effort to get non-Harvard undergraduates to participate, from a wide variety of backgrounds; organizers would reach out to community leaders and members around the Cambridge and Boston area to attend. The goal of this gathering would be to create an action plan for students who want to get involved in direct community service and be effective to the people and causes they want to serve today. Further iterations of the event could include critical examinations of pathways out of elite institutions led by a panel of people who went down those paths to think about what kind of life trajectories are possible from our starting points.

bench politics

Because I was not able to participate in the group design exercise in class, I am instead submitting a reflection based on Winner’s “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” that seems to be one of the crucial texts upon which we’re basing our analysis this week. I thought this reading was particularly interesting because it connected to the previous week’s discussion about the four levers of social change. The politics of an artifact can also be read as the code that is baked into the components of the world we’re surrounded by, and it’s interesting that code was one of the hardest levers to ideate on during our billionaire pitch challenge because it was hard to think of ways we could strategize change in the subtle and almost deterministic ways that Winner describes in the paper.

The political artifact that I’m choosing to analyze today is public benches. Hostile architecture is something that I read about a couple years ago, and public bench design became something that I started to notice everywhere I went (noting that my ability to not have noticed hostile architecture shows my privilege in not being part of the demographic targeted by this code). The most obvious example of this would be park benches that have sharp wedges or bars built into them to make lying down uncomfortable or even impossible, or the recent transition in places like the New York subway stations or even the light rail trains in my hometown to standing benches where users can only lean against the bench to rest their legs. This kind of design, like Robert Moses’ low-clearance bridges described in Winner’s piece, serve to subtly but very effectively remove a certain group of people from the public landscape. A lot of these hostile benches that I’ve seen come disguised or are even just created as artsy and modern decorative benches, like these:

While these kinds of innovative space designs are trendy, creative, and eye-catching, the priorities of who the space is designed for becomes clear through the utilities that the objects can serve. Something I’m thinking about now as I also have experience working at an architecture firm is the big trend towards glass and clean, simple lines. While I’m also a fan of the look, I wonder what that translates to in terms of comfort and surveillance, and what audience is able to enjoy these kinds of design trends. Anyways, next time you sit on a bench, maybe you too can now ponder who the bench designer is trying to discourage from sitting on it.

reparations, data, bail


One issue I’m really interested in working on is reparations for slavery and colonization, particularly in the United States. This is a pretty big idea but I think reparations are an essential part of working towards reconciling a lot of unjust foundations that this world is built upon.

Law: Echoing the calls for reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates made in his well-known article (The Case for Reparations), reparations policies could go through law and be made into policies that provide direct reparative resources, such as land, symbolic reparation, and financial stipends. For example, the conversation on land restitution in South Africa is an example of how the U.S. government could think about going about providing reparations for slavery and even Jim Crow-era policy.

Norm: Public information campaigns to normalize reparations and wealth redistribution on an everyday basis and make known the idea that reparations should be instituted in some form for slavery and colonization of indigenous land in the U.S.

Market: Institute some “micro-finance” type of program (but not loan-based, just giving money) which might incentivize well-resourced people and corporations to help provide the conditions for marginalized people to succeed and gain capital.

Code: Automate the transfer of some small portion of funds of payment systems to go towards reparations funds. For example, some portion of tuition payments could be pooled to pay for tuition for descendants of enslaved people as was demanded of Georgetown University due to its history of being built upon the foundation of the slave trade.

Data Transparency

I have background in social sciences, particularly ethnic studies, so another project I am interested in is “open data”-related work (e.g. Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences) especially in connection with police departments around the country.

Law: Update data transparency laws, with collaboration from current developers and data scientists so there are clear standards. In a similar vein to financial accountability laws, police departments should be required by law to make statistics on race, income, gender, sexuality, incarceration rate vs. offense, salaries, financial statements, etc. public.

Norm: Show people how lack of data can be leveraged against marginalized populations (e.g. lack of detailed Asian American data makes it so that the wealth disparities among Asian Americans can be glossed over without addressing South-East Asian and other Asian American populations that are not at all represented by the “Crazy Rich Asian” stats)

Market: The norm lever could be combined with the market one to have consumers and public funders to go against institutions with low data transparency, which is against the market interest of the actor.

Code: I think a lot of this problem has to do with the amount of resources people are even willing to put into data transparency, so the availability of code seems to not be the issue here (since the potential to collect detailed data or publish it already exists). One idea I had is that you could automatically log police officer actions somehow and push them to a publicly accessible database for accountability.


We talked about this a little in class when discussing mass incarceration, but the current cash bail system and the bail bond industry that’s been built upon it has huge potential for and realities of abuse which overwhelmingly targets poor people in a massively unfair way, and has been shown to be linked to higher actual incarceration rates when people actually do go to trial. Pre-trial detention based on how much you are able to pay is unjust, but current methods of dealing with it by using things like algorithms are also filled with potential to be wrong and prejudiced.

Law: Eliminiate cash bail, then figure out some legal standards for pre-trial detention (do we want it, when are we going to implement it, thorough standards for making sure whatever metric for using pre-trial detention is instituted are not biased if possible)

Norms: Talk about cash bail and how it’s unfair. Especially bail bonds — it seems to be pretty normalized in the U.S. which was weird coming from Canada, but when I talked to people I know here they seemed to just accept bail bonds as something that happens in life. Not great!

Market: Disincentivize bail bond companies and insurance companies that back them in some way. Implement huge taxes on bail bond income or something (although this is combined with law in a big way).

Code: Reduce the use of cash bail by overhauling the pre-trial detention system in the first place.


ulterior motives

I’m writing about a project i did in high school, as gaining some time and distance from it has produced some reflections I think can be framed in terms of the questions asked in class. I spent the last two years of my high school career working on a program at my public school to help students find networks of other students and improve their studying skills and ultimately their school performance. This was meant to break down barriers to entry, whether financial or emotional, to more institutionalized programs like tutoring or even informally asking for help from teachers or other students. I researched and produced a proposal for an open peer learning space held in a couple of classrooms after school each week where high-performing and experienced students would volunteer to staff group study sessions and be there to answer any questions that people might have. We even produced study guides on popular subjects with notes and practice questions that we placed around the rooms for students to take home. My idea was guided by proponents of social learning and a desire to produce materials to help our huge and understaffed school population gain the resources to succeed as much as possible given our circumstances. This was the scope of my problem: within the bounds of my school, connect students with each other and enable them to get the help they need.

Who is best positioned to address the problem? Upon first reflection, the answer to this question is students at my high school, which included me! However, part of the problem was that there was a pretty clear divide on the amount of resources my school invested in the honours versus the regular program, and I wanted to break down barriers between students in those programs so they could help each other. So, to be more specific, a non-honours student who is struggling in school would be best positioned to address the problem. This is the demographic who would be affected by the program in the first place.

What are predictable consequences of the proposed solution? The most predictable consequence was simply that this project would fail to be adopted on a large scale by students and/or cease to exist after I graduated. I had read extensively about this kind of study program being used at other schools and universities, which improved my hopes about participation. But as with most clubs and events hosted on high school or even college campuses, participation rates are often a basic thing and a real worry.

While the study program really did help some people I was trying to help and was adopted by a number of students (and a lot of volunteers from the honours program), the rooms weren’t always full and I’m not sure if it continues to exist today. While the program was on the whole successful and its disappearance wouldn’t cause much direct harm, I continue to think about my own motivations in creating it, since in truth the development of the program was geared towards college admissions. I wonder about the ways I could have approached the program’s development if I had not been so bent on making this program succeed since I had dedicated so much time to it — perhaps I would have been willing to make major shifts in the structure based on student feedback, or share the direction and leadership of the project with the people I was actually trying to help. And I think this kind of problem continues to happen with justice-oriented work past high school, no matter how wholesome the original intent. What kinds of reflection are we missing when we’re trying really hard to get some grant, or some type of recognition for our work, or even just personal fulfillment?

Intro post

Hi! My name is Kathy and I’m a junior at Harvard. I’m studying a mix of CS and ethnic studies, and am interested in intersections of art and critical studies of race, gender, class, and the like with emerging and existing technologies. I come to this class hoping to learn as much as I can about what the technology and social change space looks like, what work has been done in the field, and what work is possible and important to pursue. Coming into this course, I’ve been thinking about issues like predictive policing (“This is a Story about Nerds and Cops: PredPol and Algorithmic Policing” by Jackie Wang) and the vast wealth disparities driven by the tech industry (Elon Musk and Tesla in Reno, NV) and hope to orient my studies towards gaining the resources to navigate this kind of landscape and work towards undoing some of the very real harm that uncritical uses of technology can and has caused.