How the Voice of San Diego began Politifest, its Yearly Local Politics Engagement Initiative

by Peter Madsen


In 2011, Voice of San Diego began Politifest. A nonprofit daily digital newspaper, Voice of San Diego initiated this “public affairs summit” to showcase debates, panel discussions and Q&As with local political experts and community leaders. This event happens each year in October. During election years, Politifest covers candidates and ballot measures. In alternate years, the summit focuses on the most important issues facing our community, such as homelessness and housing. Initially, organizers made Politifest a family-minded affair that included musical acts and a dunk tank, for example. Politifest has since recentered itself on civic education. “The (Voice of San Diego) staff thought Politifest would be a fun way to engage people, reach new audiences, and bring people into the conversation,” said Julianne Markow, the Voice Chief Operating Officer who has overseen Politifest since 2017. “These are journalistically-hard conversations,” Markow added. “These aren’t PR platforms.”


Project goals: Polifest’s mission is to educate San Diegans on how local government works,  how policy is made, and how it affects their lives, Markow said. During election years, Voice of San Diego reporters review each ballot initiative and explain who supports and who opposes them, for example. The newspaper also solicits public input on the topics that Politifest covers each year.

Tools & Technology: In years past, Politifest was held during a single Saturday at a local university’s campus. Event goers carry printed programs and wear badges as they wind in and out of speakers’ presentations and panel discussions. Sometimes Politifest organizers use text messaging to solicit and gather questions from the audience.

During the pandemic, organizers held Politifest on online platforms such as Zoom, StreamYard, and YouTube. They also used an event platform called Cvent and Crowd Compass to serve as a digital program and registration portals. The multi-day event ran on weekday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The public bought tickets that ranged in price from $10 to full packages that ran between $35 and $60. Nine of the 36 sessions were free.

Some approaches are cribbed from classic American TV. In 2018, attendees could participate in a “speed dating” game with 10 local politicians. Markow said it was one of the more popular and engaging events at Politifest.

Impact: During 2020, 1,250 people registered for Politifest — a 50 percent increase from previous years. Some sessions had 20 people in them and others saw 400 people. The Voice of San Diego  made all the content online available for free after the event. Some recorded videos  enjoyed more than 6,000 views.

Project Resources: The Voice of San Diego began with $50,000 in startup funds. Each year, the event breaks even.

Here’s What Worked

1. Engaging groups with common interests

Markow said the Politifest team did a good job engaging audiences at the conference. Last year, the project received 25 topic proposals from a broad selection of community groups, Markow said, adding that groups with common interests were asked to collaborate. This fostered conversation between groups and presented multiple perspectives about a topic.

2. Going the extra mile on accessibility

Politifest organizers have found sponsors for free shuttle bus rides for participants who live in more remote parts of San Diego county. Spanish translation is provided for about half the sessions, Markow said.

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Engaging wider diversity

The Voice of San Diego wants to bring a more diverse audience, a broader San Diego, particularly BIPOC communities, to Politifest, Markow said. But organizers need to do a better job to convince BIPOC communities that attending Politifest is worth their time, Markow said.

2. Easing time constraints

Some discussions weren’t well attended, while others were so well attended there wasn’t enough standing room. Some attendees said some speakers spoke too much or didn’t leave enough time for questions afterward. Some speakers didn’t feel like they received enough speaking time. Some attendees were frustrated by events that were held at overlapping times.

Here’s What Else You Should Know

Politifest is not a place for a candidate to come and make a campaign speech, Markow said. Polifest’s name is much less a nod to politics than it is to policy, Markow said.

Learn More

To learn more, visit Voice of San Diego’s Politifest or contact Julianne Markow at

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