Akron Works To Bring Joy To Voting

Nov 6, 2016
Originally published on November 6, 2016 8:31 am

Akron, Ohio, picked a heck of a year to try to put joy back into voting. After all, two-thirds of likely voters in a recent Ohio poll picked "disgust" to describe their attitude towards politics.

Still, with the help of goats, virtual wrestling, and a pickup truck called Percival, a group of joyful voters thinks it can counter that.

The founder of a civic-engagement group called Citizen University suggested last year that the big problem with American elections is not partisanship or voting-rights battles. The problem, according to Eric Liu, is that they're so isolating.

"Really until the advent of television, elections were joyful, participatory, robust and creative," he said. Now, they're an eat-your-vegetable duty. "A lot of that joy has disappeared, and we just believe that it's possible to recreate it because people are hungry to be in community."

Liu's argument found an audience in Akron, Miami, Philadelphia, and Wichita — and $125,000 to fund five small projects in the four cities.

The brainstorming began this spring and the results have been rolling out over the fall. They include street-theater performances from the back of a Ford Ranger fancifully named Percival. There's also music harkening back to the last two centuries but with themes that are very 2016.

At a neighborhood picnic, Alpine goats were the featured candidates, a choice Melanie Christman and her daughter, Tabitha, took very seriously. "She kind of decided she really liked Bluebell for mayor because Bluebell..." Melanie reported of Tabitha's assessments of the field, before the 8-year-old finished the thought with "does her homework and brushes her teeth after every meal."

The Joy of Voting projects also include some purely 21st century twists. Movement and media artist Megan Young worked behind a screen as multi-layered cameras loomed over two wrestling mats in a community-center theater to produce an activity called "virtual wrestling."

"There's this hilarious interaction of two bodies in digital space searching for one another and trying to grab after each other," Young explained.

On Tuesday, this will be a polling place. But for now, anyone who stops by can virtually wrestle each other or images on the screen — including one of performer Faith McFluff in a Wonder Woman costume.

What's that got to do with voting? "You are wrestling sometimes with your friends and your family over political ideas," McFluff answered. "In the end you still have to work together and love each other."

And in case anybody isn't feeling the joy, artist Young says the project can serve a different purpose. "I think if somebody is really frustrated this is the best place for them because they're going to work it out in a way that's completely delightful without breaking anything or hurting anyone."

Which, in this election year, may be something to celebrate.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Ohio, a recent poll shows a majority of voters use the word disgust to describe their attitude toward politics. That hasn't deterred civic activists in Akron from their plan to put the joy back into voting. They're hoping to counter prevailing attitudes with the help of goats, virtual wrestling and a pickup truck called Percival. M.L. Schultze from Ohio member station WKSU reports.

M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: The founder of a civic-engagement group called Citizen University suggested about a year and a half ago that the big problem with American elections is not partisanship or voting rights battles. The problem, Eric Liu says, is they're so isolating.

ERIC LIU: Really till about the advent of television, elections were joyful, participatory, robust and creative.

SCHULTZE: Now, he says, they're an eat-your-vegetable duty.

LIU: A lot of that joy has disappeared, and we just believe that it's possible to recreate it because people are hungry to be in community.

SCHULTZE: Liu's argument found an audience and $125,000 to fund five small projects in four cities - Akron, Miami, Philadelphia and Wichita.

LIU: I had just got on, like, a rhyming thing. And if there was, like, a goat in a coat that would vote...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTZE: The brainstorming began this spring, and the results have been rolling out over the fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO PLAYING)

SCHULTZE: They include street-theater performances from the back of a Ford Ranger named Percival. The music harkens back to the 18- and 1900s, but the themes are all 2016.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me make one thing clear, my dear. You are either for us or against us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, isn't there anything in between?

SCHULTZE: At a neighborhood picnic, Alpine goats were the featured candidates, a choice Melanie Christman and her 8-year-old daughter Tabitha took very seriously.

MELANIE CHRISTMAN: She kind of decided we really liked...

TABITHA CHRISTMAN: Bluebell.

M CHRISTMAN: ...Bluebell for mayor because Bluebell...

TABITHA: Does her homework and brushes her teeth after every meal.

SCHULTZE: And the Joy of Voting projects include some purely 21st century twists. Movement and media artist Megan Young is working behind a screen as multi-layered cameras loom over the two wrestling mats in a community center theater.

MEGAN YOUNG: There's this hilarious interaction of two bodies in digital space searching for one another and trying to grab after each other.

SCHULTZE: On Tuesday, this will be a polling place. But for now, anyone who stops by can virtually wrestle each other or an image on the screen, including Faith McFluff in a Wonder Woman costume. What's that got to do with voting?

FAITH MCFLUFF: You are wrestling sometimes with your friends and your family over political ideas. In the end, you still have to work together and you still have to love each other.

SCHULTZE: And in case anybody isn't feeling the joy, artist Young says the project can serve a different purpose.

YOUNG: I think if somebody is really frustrated, this is the best place for them 'cause they're going to work it out in a way that's completely delightful without breaking anything or hurting anyone.

SCHULTZE: Which, in this election year, may be something to celebrate.

For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze in Akron, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.