Graphic by Carlee Francis / MTSU Sidelines
With the midterm elections less than two months away, the question on the minds of many voting activists is this: How do we get Tennesseans to vote?
What’s been done in the past just doesn’t seem to be cutting it.
Tennessee ranked 49th in the nation in voter turnout in the 2016 election with only 51 percent of eligible voters participating and ranked 50th in voter turnout for the 2014 midterm elections, according to the Elections Performance Index created in 2013 by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Nashville musician Tristen Gaspadarek, known simply as Tristen when performing, gave multiple reasons for the general feeling of frustration that usually follows the thought of elections and voting, which causes many to avoid their polling place on Election Day.
“We thought that elections were not advertised clearly,” Gaspadarek said. “So a lot of people didn’t know they were happening, and we also felt that the local ballots were incredibly hard to research. We felt that there was no social incentive or value for voting.”
For Wisconsin native Emily White, she saw it in the 2016 presidential election. Trump won by a margin of only 22,000 people in Wisconsin, or enough people to fill a stadium, as White noticed.
For Gaspadarek, it became a matter of convincing “people that having your voice heard is important and that democracy functions when everyone participates.”
“How can you just make it easy for people to get educated and not feel like this is a volatile act or not feel scared to do it?” Gaspadarek asked.
As for White, she recognized that “(voting is) on a Tuesday when (students) have classes and people have work. So there’s a lot of things out there that disenfranchise voters.”
Gaspadarek began to craft a solution this past March when she started Please Vote Nashville, an organization with the mission to “incentivize voting in our local culture by making it easy, creating ballot literacy and social rewards for voting.”
White decided to take matters in her own hands as well, launching the organization #iVoted, an initiative that works with music venues to hold voter turnout shows on Election Day.
“What we’ve been doing is activating venues across the country to let fans in on Election Day who show a photo of themselves, a selfie, outside of their polling place, and the word has just been spreading like wildfire,” White said.
Based in New York, White and the #iVoted team began to reach out to music venues in late 2017 before quickly getting Gramercy Theatre, Irving Plaza and Brooklyn venue Warsaw to commit.
From there, White realized that taking the new concept across the country would make an even bigger splash, seeing no point in keeping it exclusive to the East Coast.
As White looked to expand #iVoted’s reach, musician and #iVoted founding member Pat Sansone suggested she reach out to Gaspadarek in Nashville.
White saw the parallels between the two organizations and jumped at the opportunity.
“I said, ‘Well, let’s just partner and promote each other and support each other because we’re obviously working towards the same goals,’” White said.
During the early stages of Please Vote Nashville, Gaspadarek and her small but mighty team tackled the organization’s main goals head-on.
It starts with educating voters and simplifying the understandably daunting task of voting itself.
One way in which Please Vote Nashville achieves this is by holding registration drives throughout town.
“If you want to register people to vote, we will come and register people to vote,” Gaspadarek said. “We are nonpartisan, and we wanted a space where people could be politically active without being ideological.”
Once registered, people can understand who or what exactly they’re voting for with Please Vote Nashville’s ballot breakdowns, which are posted online on Please Vote Nashville’s social media platforms.
“We cover everyone,” Gaspadarek said. “And we give basic civics lessons. This is what the office does, because I think that’s something that’s glossed over. You can research it, but we do it for you. This is what their education is, this is what their experience is, … this is what their community service is and this is what they say their platform is.”
Please Vote Nashville also promotes an app called “Go Vote Tennessee,” which provides voters with their polling locations and what their ballot will look like, depending on which district they live in.
Once Election Day arrives and people have done their civic duty of voting, the fun begins.
On teaming up with #iVoted to run voter turnout shows, Gaspadarek said, “We throw parties on Election Day because we think that you should be rewarded.”
It was White’s idea to throw the Aug. 2 show at Mercy Lounge to celebrate those who voted in the city’s primary election. All voters needed to enter the free concert was a selfie of themselves outside of their polling location.
The night’s lineup included names such as Pat Sansone, Robyn Hitchcock and Tristen, among others.
On Nov. 6, after local voters take to the polls and snap a selfie outside their voting location, Loflin Yard, City Winery Nashville and The Lounge will be ready to reward them with a night of music.
Including Tennessee, #iVoted will be in over 50 venues in more than 25 states on Election Day.
After this year’s midterms, White hopes to keep going, doing it again and again every year.
“I’ve been warned that the presidential election years are so crazy,” White said. “There’s so much going on, but I don’t mind adding a bunch of concerts to the craziness.”
White also mentioned the possibility that #iVoted may even go global in the future.
“We’ve had colleagues in Canada and France reach out, saying, ‘Can we do #iVoted Canada and #iVoted France?’” White said. “I found out … that Canada’s national election is in 2019, so that actually would give us something to do next year.”
For Gaspadarek, her ideal future society, especially in Nashville, is one in which “voting is cool, it’s a part of the conversation and it’s easy.”
“We’re always looking for volunteers to help run registration drives … or we’re always looking for volunteer writers to help us do ballot breakdowns, and then the final step is advertising,” Gaspadarek said.
For those who are not convinced of how important their vote is, Gaspadarek said, “In your city where things are being decided like how money is allocated, how schools are performing, whether we have a transit system or not, … all these things are deeply tied to your belief system, whatever it is.”
White summed it up with an idea everyone can get behind: “I think everybody cares about something, right? … Not only does (your vote make a difference), but don’t you want someone representing you that is in line with what you believe in?”
If you are interested in volunteering and working with Please Vote Nashville, contact Gaspadarek at email@example.com.
For more information on the Nov. 6 shows, visit ivotedconcerts.com.
To contact Lifestyles Editor Sydney Wagner, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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