As voters wait in line to cast their early ballots, the messages are unmissable.
“Black Votes Matter.” “Nasty Woman.” “Y’all Vote.” “Notorious RBG.”
In an election year unlike any other in modern memory, and during a time when rallies, debate watch parties and other traditional avenues of expressing political support have been severely curtailed, the electorate still has something to say. Only now, they’re wearing it.
In Shelby County, people are wearing masks, shirts, pins and scarves to broadcast their opinions at the polls, where voters have cast a record number of early ballots. Tennessee law forbids the solicitation of votes or the display of campaign materials for a political party or candidate within 100 feet of a polling place, but social causes are fair game. (See Shelby County’s early voting sites and hours here.)
That’s in part why Pam Crittendon Johnson, 64, wore a homemade black mask with a strip of lace sewn across it, in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I felt like it was more of a tribute just to a woman that I admired. I didn’t necessarily think I was making any kind of political statement,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who is a communications advisor at FedEx, has been crafting since the beginning of the pandemic, including making homemade masks, as a sort of “sideline therapy,” she said. When she saw online other companies selling masks with lace – in a nod to the justice’s famous judicial collars – she thought: “I can do that.”
In past elections, she’s typically voted on a work day, so she usually wears whatever she’d worn to the office. This year, however, she’s been working from home, and thought the Ginsburg-style mask was appropriate.
“Since masks are the new accessories these days, it just seemed appropriate to make the tribute be as visible as possible. And everybody’s got masks on, so might as well make it stand for something,” she said.
Masks are uniquely suited for sharing political and social messages, said Rhonda Garelick, the Dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at the Parsons School of Design in New York. A mask covers the part of us we normally use for communication, so someone wearing a visual message can almost shout the message, even without speaking, Garelick said.
“Many of us will not go through the street shouting messages, but we will wear a T-shirt or a mask that says something,” she said.
Masks have been a popular way to demonstrate support, as 42-year-old Brian Harris did when he voted for former Vice President Joe Biden on the first day of early voting. Harris wore his Biden/Harris mask from his car until he got in line to vote. To abide by state law, he switched the campaign mask for a plain black mask while waiting and voting, but as soon as he stepped out of Compassion Church’s door in Germantown, he put the political one back on.
“I walked down the line and made sure people saw it. Because I don’t care at this point because I’ve already voted,” he said.
He’s noticed that people pay attention to masks, reading them and commenting, like when an older woman stopped him in a Walgreens to compliment his campaign mask.
“If I can be a billboard for the Biden and Harris ticket, that’s what I’ll do,” Harris said.
Earlier this week, a poll worker wrongly turned away voters for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and masks, the Commercial Appeal reported. The poll worker was quickly fired.
Pam Allen had no problems when she wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to the polls, she said.
Wearing that shirt, which also had #SandraBland on it, was absolutely intentional, Allen said. Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, died in a Waller County, Texas jail after a traffic stop in 2015. Bland’s death was ruled a suicide and widespread protests followed. After a Dallas news station aired cell phone footage of the arrest last year, Bland’s family called for police to reopen the investigation.
“When her story came out a couple years ago I realized that it could be me, and since her life mattered, I wanted to wear her name to the polls,” Allen, 40, said.
Allen sees racism worsening under the current administration. Wearing the Black Lives Matter shirt to vote was a way to demonstrate and reaffirm her right to exercise her voice.
“Black lives and minority lives and women’s lives don’t matter to a lot of people, and that’s why I wore it, to say: Our lives do matter, our voice matters, our choices matter,” Allen said.
It comes down to wanting to be vocal about our freedom of speech, said Memphian Charlisha Renata, who founded, owns and designs streetwear for her online brand, Know Definition.
“You are making a statement when you vote, and people want to be able just to wear that statement. They are a bit fed up and want to voice how they feel,” she said.
While anger and frustration are the driving emotions, Renata, 40, also sees Black voters expressing pride in the community, as well as pride in Kamala Harris on the ticket.
She’s also seen an uptick in sales, and has noticed people on social media discussing and planning what they’ll wear when they vote.
Claire Ryan, like Johnson, Harris and Allen, had never worn anything political or social to the polls. This election felt different.
“I feel so strongly that this election is going to be the make-it-or-break-it election for our country,” she said. “This year I thought it was really important to say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I stand for and this is what I stand against.’”
Ryan wore a scarf emblazoned with the phrase “Nasty Woman,” a reference to a phrase then-candidate Donald Trump used against Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate in 2016.
The scarf, which was a gift from a friend to her partner for her 60th birthday, is reversible, with images of Ginsburg on the opposite side. Ryan opted for the pattern she believed would be more subtle and less likely to be taken as political.
“I don’t think that wearing a scarf is going to change anybody else’s mind. I would welcome somebody engaging with me so that I could talk about why I was voting the way I was voting,” she said. “And I also wanted other people who felt it’s important for us to speak out and it’s important for us to make this change now, I wanted for them to know, OK, I’ve got a kindred spirit next to me in line. And also I happen to love the scarf.”
Renata hasn’t yet voted, but she said she’ll definitely wear something with a message when she and her family go. One of her favorites is a shirt from her line that’s imprinted with the phrase “The spirits of my ancestors flow through me … They’re still mad.”
To her, the shirt embodies the stunted progress made in righting the wrongs of all oppressed people.
“I feel that those that came before me are still upset and we are still fighting for things that our forefathers and foremothers fought for,” she said. “They’re still mad – and I’m mad, too, because I know what they went through to get me here and I’m still fighting.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
Know before you go
See Shelby County’s early voting sites and hours here
Enter the address where you are registered to vote below and see an interactive sample ballot.
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