There is a crunch of leaves as students walk to class. The air is crisp with morning dew. You can almost hear the echoes of retirees chiding you for not being registered. Yes, that’s right, it’s America’s favorite season — voting season.
The University of Wisconsin has decided to celebrate the spirit of the occasion with an absolute classic — a festival. VoteFest, to be specific. What distinguishes VoteFest from its layabout cousin FreakFest is that it promotes not debauchery and open-container violations, but civic engagement and early voting. From Oct. 22-27th, students have the opportunity to be poked, prodded, bribed, rewarded or otherwise, shall we say, lovingly press-ganged into voting. They can hear speeches, meet Bucky, make art and receive a variety of treats for their civic participation.
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It’s amazing, really. But it leaves me wondering if the parallels to FreakFest go deeper than the name and the timing.
It is common knowledge in Madison that FreakFest was set up as the city’s riposte to unofficial, which is to say uncontrolled, Halloween partying. In the early 2000s, tens of thousands of revelers would take to the streets, smash up buildings and occasionally fight police. In a bid to regain control, the city introduced ticketing, entertainment and fencing. And it worked — attendance and arrests plummeted and the event has continued as a city-controlled version of its former self. No tear gas required.
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The only costume to be seen at VoteFest is Bucky, and it’s more than likely there won’t be any arrests. But I’d like to suggest that the purposes of the two events, VoteFest and FreakFest, are similar. They are well-funded, highly-polished attempts by the university and the city to direct the flow of public activity. For FreakFest, it’s partying. For VoteFest, it’s political engagement.
One will not see a weeklong festival, replete with giveaways and subsidized by the university, to attempt to coax students into joining campaigns to improve student-worker conditions, build tenants’ unions or address the racial disparities in Madison. The university’s desire to appear “non-partisan” is a poor excuse — the issue is not of partisanship but of where political engagement goes. Voting does matter, but it’s easy. It’s sterile. And focusing on it perpetuates the highly-convenient myth that elections are the best way to change things.
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Peppy activities like VoteFest and things like the protest ban are two sides of the same coin. They are meant to discourage, or at least offer no support for, political activity outside of elections while making voting feel like going to a carnival. They reveal the level of student political engagement that the UW system is comfortable with, and where they are comfortable with it being directed. They don’t want it directed at things that will lead to embarrassment for the city or university administration. They want everything to proceed smoothly and within the boundaries that they establish, both explicitly and implicitly.
When VoteFest is over, we will pack up all the glossy signs and break down the professional-looking booths. Bucky will take off his costume, and maybe go to a house party where he will get too drunk and reveal his identity. It’ll all be done and dusted, to be picked up from the same place in a year or two. I guess this is where my grand FreakFest/VoteFest metaphor breaks down. Even at the best of times, Halloween parties stop after a weekend or two. But the problems that face Madison students and residents don’t.
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You’re not going to get any treats for taking your political activity beyond the boundaries of what the university views as laudable. But you’re going to have a better chance at changing things. So do it. To hell with what the university promotes — let’s keep the real party going.
Sam Palmer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in biology.