My 15-year-old daughter organized her first election event this year. This was the first in-person, public action of her Sunrise Movement hub, made up of both middle school and high school students from a few different local schools. Knowing that most of her team would be nervous about a confrontational protest event, she wanted to do something uplifting to help the team - and their parents - feel comfortable with the action.
Get Out the Vote
The plan was to have excited students waving from public sidewalks of a busy local intersection holding signs encouraging people to vote on the Saturday BEFORE Election Day. The messages were intentionally nonpartisan. Examples of their signs said: “Vote,” “Your Vote Counts,” “Vote for Our Future,” “Your Vote Matters,” and “Our Voices Count.” They wanted to energize citizens to feel empowered, and urge voters to get out to the polls.
What Do You See?
As I observed the event, I noticed a curious phenomenon. Unlike a political campaign action where the public would react to a specific candidate or policies, the neutral “Vote” message from kids obviously too young to vote was like an ink-blot test for motorists. Most people would just honk or wave in support of the students. That was what I expected.
However, a fair amount of people who rolled down their windows to shout a passing message or to converse during a red light seemed to assume that the kids were out there to support THEIR presidential candidate. “Thanks for being out here for Biden” or “Yeah! Alright! Trump 2020!” were common responses. Both Trump AND Biden supporters (identified by their bumper stickers) said, “Yes! We need to count all the votes to make sure he wins." Most people clearly seemed to identify positively with the message, but lots of people were clearly interpreting the message in very different - and sometimes highly partisan - ways.
Then, there was the subset of people who gave thumbs down along with angry faces. The sign-holders on my side of the street counted 15 of those during the two hour event, and it sounds like there were about the same amount on the other side. A dad keeping an eye on his sign-holding daughters wondered aloud, “What does that even say about you as a person if you’re against kids encouraging you to vote?" Admittedly, there are definitely indigenous people in the U.S. who feel disenfranchised on their own land...like they shouldn’t have to vote for a country that doesn’t recognize their rights or sovereignty. But, I’m pretty sure that wasn't the motivation for that negative behavior in the upper-middle class, largely white suburb of St. Louis we were standing in.
It seems to me like our kids were essentially holding up a giant mirror to the passers-by. Every driver saw what they brought with them to the moment and reacted accordingly.
Three days past election day, we've seen plenty of that ugly reflection of Americans who are not interested in fair elections as they demanded the counting of votes to stop in states where the rules clearly allow our military, absentee voters, and others to legally have their votes included.
As a volunteer advocate who works with Congress year round, I believe strongly that every voice should matter. I worked for the past months endlessly explaining to Missouri voters how to navigate our complex absetee and mail-in ballot rules (those two types of ballots are different in our state). Yet I still belatedly heard from a voter who had a ballot rejected because he was confused about our notary signature requirement to vote while at college out of state.
What Comes Next?
Post-election, those who fight for the rights of people every day will have plenty of work to do. Our values do not change. No matter who lives in the White House, our voting laws still make it harder for some to vote than others. Votes are still suppressed. Racism still plays a role in housing, criminal justice, health care, and a host of other policies that we can continue to improve bit by bit every day.
This poignant image shared by artist Angie King publicly on her facebook page on Election Eay beautifully describes how I've been feeling about Election 2020. The results of any election only tell me who I will be working with...not what I will be working on.