uses two-minute cartoons to visually explain the byzantine language of ballot measures

By Gary Walker

Otis College of Art and Design student Gaby Gorostriota had given scant attention to the eight statewide initiatives on the Nov. 4 ballot until just recently.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone into depth to learn about them unless someone like Jay-Z told me about them,” Gorostriota, 21, admitted with a laugh.

But last month, Gorostriota and several of her classmates began working on a video project that not only tested their creative animation skills but also brought them face-to-face with the intricate workings of democracy — without any nudging from the Grammy-award winning rapper and record producer.

The project was for, a nonprofit and nonpartisan election information website that seeks to educate voters about the state’s often dizzyingly complex ballot propositions through a series of short animated videos.

SeePolitcal is the brainchild of Santa Monica resident Nate Kaplan, who previously worked as communications deputy for former Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

The idea to create an informative and entertaining website that would cut through political jargon and illuminate the fine print of ballot initiatives came to Kaplan in 2008. Rosendahl and his team had spent several hours working together to understand and analyze that year’s ballot offerings in order for the councilman to take public positions on them.

“I’m trained in this and the councilman had been in politics for over 50 years, and we thought if it took us this long to figure out these issues, how long was it taking others to figure them out? So I started thinking about some way where we could make this information easier to understand and accessible to everybody,” Kaplan said.

Increased public understanding of ballot propositions could pay dividends in increasing voter participation during off-year elections. Initiatives can increase turnout in lower-profile midterm elections, according to the academic political science journal American Political Research.

SeePolitical tackled two June ballot propositions with its inaugural videos and plans to launch four new ones — explaining Propositions 1, 45, 46 and 47 — on their site today.

As early as Friday, those videos will also be airing in English on KABC Channel 7 and in Spanish on L.A.’s Univision affiliate (KMEX 34) through Election Day.

“We were looking at different ways to distribute these videos and I literally called every major [television] station in Los Angeles. KABC showed the most interest. They already had a ‘GOTV’ [Get Out the Vote] campaign scheduled with Univisíon, so they thought it was a perfect match to bring these videos into the mix,” Kaplan said.

“We are looking at using them in our news broadcasts — pending their length — quite often until Election Day. Also, we would like to share them via social media and on our digital platforms,” Univisiòn News Director Marco Flores said in a statement.

The videos, produced with the assistance of West L.A.-based film production studio Imaginary Forces, typically run no longer than two minutes. They feature colorful graphics and sound effects as well as text and voiceovers that explain the propositions and what they would mean for voters.

Keeping things simple is a SeePolitical mantra.

“Simplifying is one of the guiding principles in this process. We’ve broken [the videos] down into component parts in order to communicate them in a way you’ll be able to understand them better,” said Chip Houghton, one of the co-owners of Imaginary Forces. “With these propositions, I would go into the voting booth not really knowing what I was voting for. So when Nate mentioned this to my business partner, we said ‘We’re in.’”

The visual aspect of SeePolitical cannot be understated, Houghton and Kaplan said.

“We’ve all learned about these propositions in the past through pamphlets written in black and white and very dense. We’re a very visual society, so to be able to communicate those ideas visually and with audio is how you hopefully get people to notice them and engage in them,” Houghton said.

“That’s the beauty of animation,” Kaplan added. “We don’t have a talking head explaining these issues, or using text-based descriptions. What makes it so simple — and, we think, effective — is combining the audio with the video and logically explaining them. We live not only in a more interactive world, but also in a world that depends on videos. Attention spans seem to have lapsed, and that’s why we try to keep these videos under two minutes.”

“One of the challenges is we don’t have enough people participating and what we want to do is not tell people how to vote but what they’re voting on,” Houghton said.  “This does that in a visual language, and with sound effects and music.”

A week before the videos were scheduled to run on KABC and Univision, the SeePolitical team met with the Otis College students to fine-tune the videos and offer suggestions on adding sound effects, changing colors or removing enhancing graphics. A team of three Otis seniors was assigned to each video.

Jessica Ramirez, 23, worked on the video for Proposition 47, which if approved by voters would reduce certain nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in order to relieve prison overcrowding. Ramirez said that because her team was required to learn the pros and cons of the initiative, she found herself becoming interested in the ballot measure and what it could mean for the state.

“I learned a lot because we had to figure out how to communicate it, and by doing so we had to understand it,” Ramirez said.

Gorostriota, who was on Ramirez’s team, agreed.

“It’s the same concept that when you’re teaching something you learn even more,” she said.

Sierra Hunchkins, who also worked on the video for Proposition 47, said working on the initiative has made her more curious about the other ballot measures. “I’m interested to see how the other videos came out and to see the other propositions,” she said.

That residual interest is exactly what Houghton had hoped would happen.

“This is about getting people to become engaged in our political process. And what we’re seeing with this younger generation, they’re thirsting for that engagement,” he said.

Sherri Akers, a Mar Vista community activist who last year was part of a group that called for a mechanism to opt out of receiving paid political advertisements, is excited about SeePolitical.

SeePolitical “presents each issue using common sense and makes it easily understood. It’s so much more effective than the nonsense that turns up in our mailbox. I think it will be a huge success,” Akers said.

SeePolitical started with ballot propositions because, while they can be hard to understand, they are “black and white,” Kaplan said. “Either something’s there or it’s not, so that’s why we decided to go with propositions before focusing on candidates.”

Kaplan hopes to expand SeePolitical, currently engaged in an fundraising campaign, beyond California. This month, SeePolitical won a National Innovation Award from the nonprofit Social Venture Network, a membership group for socially responsible businesses.

“We hope to be a household name by the 2016 presidential election,” he said. “We’re bringing politics and elections into the digital age.”

PHOTO: A still from a video.