If my time working in online advocacy taught me anything, it is to always have a call to action. So, after writing the first 5,500 words of preface this first week, it is long past time that I remind you of the most important thing you need to do right now: make 100% sure you are registered to vote.
Some states have been purging voters from the rolls for dubious reasons. Other states have early voter registration deadlines, or unique requirements. It’s best to take care of it now while you’re thinking about it.
Vote.org has you covered. It takes less than a minute to check your registration. And they’ll help you register, too. The last thing any of us wants is for the deadline to pass, or for you to show up on election day and not be able to vote. Take care of it now.
2012 is the last year remaining to look at in this opening series-within-a-series reflecting on how I spent the 100 days leading up to the six elections of my voting-age life. That fall, I was more involved than ever. And we won the election. But I felt none of the exhilaration of 2008. In fact, I was quickly burning out.
I had been working for the past year in the role my old boss had in 2008 (see yesterday) at the same Obama-allied organization. With this promotion came more responsibilities and longer hours. If I was awake, I felt guilty any hour I wasn’t keeping up with politics and responding to emails and texts. I knew this was unhealthy and unsustainable, but the importance of the work, and the nonstop culture of the organization weighed on me.
The job of my team was to activate online audiences: email, websites, and outreach to bloggers and social media. Email was the biggest focus, and we’d had success with it in the years I’d been there. But by 2012 the inboxes our messages landed in were crowded with appeals from every cause, candidate, and nonprofit on earth in addition to the even-larger industry of commercial emails from retailers, restaurants, yoga studios, and the rest.
During the 100 days leading up to the election of 2008, I was in D.C. working long hours for an ally of Barack Obama, crafting graphics and websites in rapid response to every twist and turn in the election. As part of this work, our team went to the Democratic Convention in Denver, where I watched Obama accept the party’s nomination at Mile High Stadium. The Republican convention was in St. Paul, so I also had the chance to come home to Minnesota to support an outreach effort with bloggers covering the protests there.
In the last weeks, my employer wanted everyone out of the D.C. office and knocking on doors in key states. I had begun dating a coworker around that time and joined her to knock on doors in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Her background in film, culture, and social justice had put her in charge of escorting two actors who had volunteered to help the campaign. Fans of quirky TV and horror movies might have known them, but on the side of the road in a Pittsburgh subdivision under overcast skies they were just two more earnest young men in Obama t-shirts trying to make a difference.
I began this series writing about election losses because each was a very narrow loss that left me wondering after the fact if I might have done more, spent the last 100 days in some more intentional manner. It’s only natural now to turn to the years I voted in an election victory. Since the year lines up with the 96 days remaining until the election, let’s start with the first presidential election I was of voting age.
In the 100 days leading up to the 1996 election, I was between schools and trying to make a life in the city as an adult for the first time. My girlfriend and I had met at College in Wisconsin. We moved in together in Minneapolis having left school separately for opposite reasons: she left in part because of the anxiety associated with excelling in her classes; I left because I’d lost focus on my classes and was instead writing zines, experimenting with websites, hosting a radio show, and hanging out with friends in coffeeshops.
During the 100 days leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I was an artist in residence at D.C.’s Halcyon Art Lab (then S&R Foundation) north of Georgetown. I had been paid to work on the last two elections, so it was strange to be on the outside, not traveling to a swing state to knock on doors, not crafting updates responding to every sliver of breaking news.
The art studio was located in a century-old former elementary school. I learned that D.C. had sent only white children there before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. While working in the building and learning this history, it occurred to me that my parents were in elementary school when Brown was decided — not ancient history at all. If they had grown up in D.C. instead of Minneapolis, they might have attended such a segregated school. But northern cities had segregated schools too. Courts forced Minneapolis schools to desegregate in 1972, citing a long pattern of neighborhood boundary manipulation that included the South Minneapolis neighborhoods three generations of my family called home.
The project I developed that fall involved a lot of digging in to these kinds of histories and a lot of abstract, contemplative exploration on foot and in archives. It was in some ways a response to how I spent the previous two presidential election years. Working ten- and twelve-hour days at a political organization, I found little time for detours, nuance and creativity. I had come to believe that imaginative local work is a better way to bring about change, even though that sort of thing doesn’t scale.
In the 100 days leading up to the election of 2000, I was living in South Minneapolis, working as a barista downtown and attending classes part-time at the University of Minnesota.
The conversation at the coffeeshop and on campus was a cynical one. The salacious Bill Clinton impeachment spectacle turned some off from politics altogether. Others felt left out by his centrist compromises. If a Democrat could enact harsh restrictions on safety net programs, build prisons and celebrate corporate media consolidation, what was the point of participating in the two-party system at all? The idea that both parties were guilty of selling out to big corporations was everywhere. At least on the left. Large protests shutting down the World Trade Organization in Seattle the previous fall had united environmentalists, labor unions and others in opposition to the undemocratic and exploitative side of globalization. But these ideas may have come too late, or seemed too extreme to shape the 2000 presidential race.
I was living in Philadelphia during the run-up to the 2004 election and working my final few weeks at a nonprofit art gallery. I had been at the same gallery on the morning of 9/11, had watched George W. Bush turn that unifying tragedy into a power grab with the hastily passed Patriot Act and the opening of wars in Afghanistan (somehow still going 19 years later) and Iraq. The Philadelphia I’d begun exploring on foot, bike and transit in early 2001 — like cities everywhere — became an increasingly hostile place as money flowed in for barriers, surveillance and police. Months earlier, I had taken a bus to New York to join the huge march against the Iraq war, but the election was fast approaching. What could one person do in the finite days remaining?
My friend Claire invited me to a MoveOn meeting on voter turnout at St. Peter’s Church on Pine Street. High voter turnout in our heavily Democratic Philadelphia neighborhoods was key to winning Pennsylvania, the organizers explained. I did a bit of volunteering for that effort in the weeks that followed, but calling strangers and knocking on doors made me nervous. Instead, with that seed of an idea about voter turnout in mind, I spent much of that fall making voter-themed street art and postcards, and encouraging other friends to do the same. I don’t know if anyone voted because of our strange stickers and stencils and postcards, but the effort felt a lot more constructive than sitting at home and fretting about all the dire news.
A few days before the election, a band of cyclists from Portland arrived to crash with Claire. Or perhaps they knew her activist/artist roommate Elena, who I’d met through an arts program at Temple University. Their multi-level apartment — a tangle of stairs and bedrooms and awkward rooms split with partitions atop a giant old Spruce Street row house — had been home to a half dozen friends in quick succession around that time. Its rooms were a collective resource passed on from friend to friend when someone moved away or moved in with a lover.
We are 100 days out from the U.S. presidential election. This will be the seventh I have been eligible to vote in. Of the previous six, three went the way I voted and three did not.* It’s the losses I have been thinking about as this election nears. Not because I believe Trump will be reëlected, though it is possible. But because the losses hurt more when you wonder after the fact if you might have done more to help. Better to do what you can now.
As a writer and artist living in quarantine in a place certain to vote against Trump (Washington, D.C.), it is hard to know what more to do these next 100 days other than write, make art, and hope that some of it ripples out to places where the vote is more likely to be close. And so, I’ve recently reconfigured this site to help me do that. There are plenty of places for punditry and analysis of breaking news, I have no interest in that, so I find myself asking again, “what is the conversation you want to be having?”
It may take 100 days to find an answer, but the ties between current events and the books and film and stories I’ve been immersing myself in will surely be part of it.