I dropped my mail-in ballot in the box at City Hall this month. It was a wholly disempowering experience.
I felt as if I were being asked to choose between rotten meat and cold soup — an option that could be lethal vs. one that was viscerally unappealing. When that’s the range of choices (especially after what had been a genuinely inspiring Democratic primary), one’s hope for electoral politics can dwindle. I also felt consumed by the familiar feeling that the system was rigged — that the significant problems of voter suppression, the Electoral College, and the limited two-party system conspired to make my vote mean even less.
On top of all that, I still worried I’d do something wrong to invalidate my ballot. I walked away feeling as if all I had done was lent my support to candidates I don’t like, licked two envelopes, and sent my ballot into a void. Nobody was even there to hand me a sticker to confirm I had completed what felt like a mere performance of civic engagement.
Simply put, my faith in the electoral system is minimal. Yet despite those doubts, a few weeks ago, I ended up doing a deep dive reading about the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), the grassroots organization led by formerly incarcerated people that brought forward Amendment 4. Passed in 2018 but since undermined by state lawmakers, the amendment restored voting rights to nearly 1.5 million Floridians who had lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction. Reading their stories, I squirmed a little at the cognitive dissonance I felt: personally ambivalent toward voting, yet tremendously moved reading the individual testimonials of people who could vote again after decades of disenfranchisement.
Their journeys were a reminder that in the United States, voting is essentially a privilege. While everyone living here (as well as many people beyond our borders) is affected by the decisions of our elected officials, throughout our nation’s history, not all of us have been permitted to help choose those officials. As Michelle Alexander notes in the first paragraphs of The New Jim Crow: “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history.”
There’s a lot of dialogue these days about how it’s important to leverage your privilege to help support struggles that may not be your own. So to apply that principle to the privilege of voting ability, I created an art project called Vote By Pal.
It’s very simple. I connect people who are unable to vote for any reason with people who are registered to vote but don’t care to, also for any reason. The can’t-voter lets the can-voter know whom they would vote for if they could. Then the can-voter can vote according to their pal’s beliefs, if they choose. There’s of course no obligation — that would be against the law. I’ve matched several people this way from across the country. One pair consist of a person who can’t vote because they’re undocumented, and a U.S. citizen who can’t bring themselves to choose between two candidates who they believe have been credibly accused of sexual assault.
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake Vote By Pal for yet another thinly veiled get-out-the-vote-(for-Biden) vehicle. It’s not that. As I explain on the project’s website, even at its most ambitious, Vote By Pal’s effect on the election will undoubtedly be negligible. It’s a conceptual art project relying on a narrow population: people who don’t want to vote but are willing to essentially be a disenfranchised person’s proxy. So it’d be pathetically inefficient at maximizing turnout. Instead, it’s an attempt to help spread around whatever it is that enfranchisement has to offer, what those stories on FRRC’s website testified to — feelings of participation, of counting, of making one’s self heard.
I get those who see something cynical in voting for candidates you don’t believe in. When I voted for Jill Stein in 2016 (I know, I know), I at least felt I was voting my conscience. I was doing my small part to push for a system with more than two parties — one that could acknowledge a fuller spectrum of American politics than what we have now. It’s hard to imagine that voting Democrat or Republican in 2020 could give that feeling.
However, I think there’s also something cynical about not exercising one’s ability to vote when demonstrably racist and classist voting laws lock so many out of that opportunity. And voting for someone who is disenfranchised is not a one-way transaction. The person who votes can take satisfaction in maintaining a subversive position toward the voting system. You can also know you’re becoming an accomplice to a disenfranchised person, and standing up for the principle that a lot more people in this country should have the right to vote than currently do.
“Voting for someone who is disenfranchised is not a one-way transaction.”
Vote By Pal is not going to change the course of the election. As art, its role is simply to foster critical thinking, important dialogue, and connections between people that would otherwise not occur. It’s meant to remind us that our agency and creativity are so much more expansive than our ballot choices. And our on-the-ground actions including mutual aid — sharing the resources and privileges we have with our neighbors and peers — are the first, most crucial steps to build the world we really want to live in.
I remain hopeful that one day, I’ll be able to vote my conscience and also end up with someone I truly support in the White House. In the meantime, I will settle for creating connections between people through creative work. So far, that has meant helping a few people feel their voices were heard — for once — through voting.
Donna Oblongata is a multidisciplinary artist living in Philadelphia and running Vote By Pal at votebypal.com.