“I have a radical proposition,” wrote Eric Liu in 2016. “Let’s bring back the joy of voting.”
I know what you’re thinking. Joy? In our political climate of stress and fear and anger?
“It helps to remember a time in America when voting was fun,” he continues. “When it meant much more than a grim burden. That time is called most of American history. From the Revolution through the civil rights era, the United States had a culture of voting that was robustly, raucously participatory. It was about festivals, street theater, open-air debates, toasting and fasting, parades and bonfires.”
Of course, voting was initially restricted to white men. But with each painfully earned expansion of the franchise, a creative culture of voting took hold.
During the 19th century, immigrants and urban political machines fueled this spirit of communal campaign participation. During Reconstruction, new black citizens celebrated in Jubilee Day parades that linked emancipation to the right to vote.
But now, decades of television and the Internet have killed much of that joyful culture of voting. The couch has replaced the commons and the screen has made most citizens spectators.
Why bother voting? Because there’s no such thing as not voting, as Eric shares in his TED Talk.
In a democracy, not voting is voting – for all that you may detest and oppose.
What we need now is an electoral culture that’s about being together together.
In person. In loud and passionate ways. That means instead of “eat your vegetables” or “do your duty,” voting should feel more like “join the club.” Or better yet, “Join the celebration.”
So, in 2016, our team here at Citizen University launched a project called the Joy of Voting with our friends at the Knight Foundation.
We invited artists, activists, designers and educators in Wichita, Akron, Miami and Philadelphia to come up with projects that foster a local culture of voting. In Miami that meant neighborhood block parties with DJs for people standing in line at early voting locations. In Akron it meant local actors performing political plays in the bed of a pickup truck that goes from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Philadelphia, it was a festival of music and food from around the world to celebrate the first vote of newly naturalized citizens. In Wichita, it’s creating mixtapes in the North End and live graffiti-art to get out the vote.
Over the course of a few years, Citizen University supported nearly 60 projects in eight cities around the country that served as examples of what interactive, inclusive, and joyful elections can look like.