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What does “vote” merch even mean in 2020?

Vote masks and T-shirts are a reminder, a plea, a scream into the void.

A volunteer poll worker wears a “VOTE” mask in Ohio.
Ty Wright/Getty Images

In the summer of 2018, rocked by the Trump presidency, Alexandra Posen and Dahna Goldstein formed Resistance by Design, a project that would combine art and political activism. By September, they had released their first design: The “HERWAVE 2018” silk scarf, which bore an illustration of every Democratic woman running for Congress in the midterm elections, their portraits drawn in a bout of “creative fury” by Posen, an artist and the former creative director of her brother Zac Posen’s fashion brand. Sheer and painterly, with a blue-gray border, the scarf is detailed and delicate. You could spend a long time poring over it, identifying each candidate.

This April, Resistance by Design started selling another politically charged garment with a very different look: a face mask that said, in thick, uneven capital letters, “VOTE.” Posen drew the design a few weeks into stay-at-home orders in New York, where she lives. The mask’s stark, unsubtle message was an expression of her shock at the moment we were living through, and her despair over what she felt was an acute lack of leadership in a moment of crisis.

“The urgency and terrifyingness of Covid, I think, did not call for a heady expression,” says Posen. “It called for a yelp. It called for a mandate.”

Resistance by Design, which gives financial support to organizations like Emily’s List, She Should Run, and NARAL Pro-Choice America, put that face mask into production, and now people are wearing it all over the country, on the street and on social media. Goldstein and Posen wouldn’t share how many masks they’ve sold in total, but Goldstein noted that in the 24 hours after Hillary Clinton tweeted a photo of herself in the mask, they got 3,000 orders. (Kendall Jenner, Kerry Washington, and Megan Rapinoe have all worn the mask, too.) Resistance by Design now sells “vote” tank tops, totes, hats, and towels as well, and Goldstein and Posen created a purple version of their mask in collaboration with Stacey Abrams and her voting rights organization, Fair Fight.

With a few weeks until the 2020 presidential election, “vote” merchandise is everywhere. You can buy a “vote” tee from Madewell, a “vote” hoodie from Levi’s, or a pair of over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots with the word “vote” running down the calf in interlocking letters. Theoretically, you could get yourself a Christian Siriano “vote” gown or a Louis Vuitton “vote” sweater, both of which recently appeared on the runway for spring/summer 2021.

As far as messaging through fashion goes, the meaning of a “vote” mask or T-shirt is pretty self-evident. It means you should vote. And for many people, encouraging civic engagement is the most basic objective of putting the word “vote” on their body.

“It takes multiple pings, little reminders, to get through to people, so I kind of feel like me and other people wearing ‘vote’ masks, bandanas, and T-shirts are just one extra little ping,” says Justine Larbalestier, a novelist who lives in New York. “Maybe someone will look at it and say, ‘Oh fuck, have I registered?’ It’s just reiterating the message.”

Larbalestier is originally from Australia, and when she became a U.S. citizen 9 years ago, she tried to register and vote in two separate elections, in 2012 and 2014, and was told both times that she wasn’t on the rolls. She voted in a U.S. election for the first time in 2016. “It still shocks me to my core that voting is so hard here,” she says.

But while “vote” merchandise enjoyed a similar rush of popularity in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Covid-19 pandemic has given it additional layers of meaning. At a time when in-person efforts to raise awareness about the election are limited by social distancing, it’s a way to safely express that message to the world at large beyond making phone calls, sending texts, or fundraising from home.

“We can’t knock on doors, which I’ve done every election cycle,” says Erin Allweiss, who has been wearing a Resistance by Design mask on the street in Brooklyn. “A ‘vote’ mask is a reminder that there’s an election coming up. It’s the yard sign on our faces, encouraging people to participate.”

Face masks, in particular, add a new pointedness to the message to vote.

“The fact that we have to wear face masks means that something is wrong, so it’s a great place to put a message about how to make things right,” says Adelle McElveen, who bought a purple Resistance by Design mask after discovering it on the Fair Fight website.

Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph wears a “vote” mask while meeting vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (not pictured).
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Wearing a “vote” mask on the streets of New York has been a “very interactive experience,” McElveen says. People often tell her they love her mask, ask where she got it, and give her a thumbs-up. One older man called out to her, “Yes, I’m voting!” That positivity feels great, she says.

“I want to normalize getting involved and caring and taking action,” says McElveen, who has run, staffed, and volunteered on a number of political campaigns. But, she clarifies, voting is just the beginning of that work — and wearing “Vote” merchandise isn’t enough.

“It’s not voting once every four years or every two years. We have to keep engaged with our elected officials, we have to educate ourselves, and we have to be active participants in democracy,” McElveen says. “If we don’t, budgets, policies, and priorities are going to be made that affect us and we won’t have had our say.”

“Vote” merchandise certainly runs the risk of coming off as slacktivism, an easy and vague way to signal responsible citizenship. It doesn’t help that during this election cycle, a stampede of corporations like Uber and Nike have been using encouragements to vote as a method of marketing their own businesses, largely without coming out for one candidate or another. “The messages end up mealymouthed — these companies are willing to gesture at the maintenance of a minimally functional democracy, but are not willing to say it with their chests,” writes the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull.

The question of whether “vote” merchandise is carefully neutral or inherently partisan depends on who’s making it and who you ask. Because Resistance by Design has been clear about its progressive political values, Goldstein and Posen feel that these views are embedded in their mask design: When they say “vote,” they do not mean for Trump. And in the sense that Trump has attacked the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and has not committed to a peaceful transition if he loses the election — in the face of voter suppression, particularly of Black voters — the word “vote” can read as full-throated defiance of a president actively seeking to undermine the democratic process.

Still, some people who wear “Vote” merchandise like it precisely because it doesn’t state a preference for one candidate over another. Mayumi Escalante, a federal employee based in Maryland, has been wearing a “Vote” mask as a way to remind people to turn out on November 3 while complying with the Hatch Act’s rules against wearing a candidate’s clothing or expressing a partisan stance on social media while on duty.

“I happen to live in a Black community, so when I’m wearing my ‘Vote’ mask out, with the people who are able to see me, I’m encouraging them to vote,” says Escalante. “It’s not just a national election — we have our local and county elections. It’s personal. It’s about our home.”

Michelle Virshup, another federal employee in Virginia, has gone all out with her “Vote” gear: Birdies flats, Madewell T-shirt, Resistance by Design mask, and jewelry by Rachel Pfeffer, ByChari, and Luca & Danni. After Christian Siriano’s fashion week show, she ordered his $35 “Vote” print masks for herself, her mom, and her sister. Virshup calls herself a “most-important” issue voter, and for her that’s the Affordable Care Act, which meant she was covered by her father’s health insurance when, in 2013, she needed a bone marrow transplant due to an autoimmune disorder. When she wears her “Vote” merch out, she’s thinking about the uncertain future of the ACA, a challenge to which will go before the Supreme Court a week after the election.

Virshup has also found that posting photos of herself in neutral “Vote” merch creates a more open platform for having conversations about the election with members of her extended family who have different political views. It’s easy to dismiss someone who’s going all out for a candidate you already dislike; it’s much harder to wave away someone who is simply promoting voting.

Christina Diem Pham, a video game producer based in Los Angeles, is open about her hope that Trump will lose the election, but says that she prefers the candidate-free mask from Resistance by Design because she’s “not super jazzed” about Biden. (“I totally would have worn a Bernie mask,” she notes.) Besides, she says, she can recycle a “vote” mask for future elections.

Rebecca Lowman, an actor, audiobook narrator, and director, and Rebecca Asher, a director for TV shows like The Good Place and Grace and Frankie, started making “vote” T-shirts at their home in LA this summer. While Lowman has been able to continue working from her home studio during the pandemic, Asher’s work slowed to a dribble as productions halted. To fill her time, she started taking photography classes, which inspired Lowman to cut out a “vote” stencil and print it on a shirt using cyanotype processing.

They devised a simple operation, advertised on their Instagram pages: If people sent them a receipt for a donation to one of the seven voting accessibility organizations listed on their LinkTree, they would send them a T-shirt as a reward. Thus far, people have donated more than $13,000 — in increments as small as $1 and as large as $1,000 — and Lowman and Asher have produced nearly 370 shirts. (The project remains without an official name: “We just keep calling them ‘Cyanotype Vote Tees,’” explains Asher.) They’ve had a few repeat customers, some of whom worry that they’re breaking the rules by submitting a donation for a second shirt.

“All the people we’ve sent shirts to are sending the nicest emails,” says Asher. “I guess it’s a form of connection, too, at this time when you’re not really engaging with people as usual.”

Though Asher and Lowman aren’t shy about their political alignments — pointing out that many of the organizations in their LinkTree go through ActBlue, the Democratic and progressive fundraising platform — they’ve made shirts for Republicans as well as avowed Democrats. For a friend’s mother, who does voter outreach in her community, they made a custom “vote” shirt from a baseball tee with red sleeves.

“We clearly have a preference for who wins this election, but we also do want as many people to vote as possible,” says Asher. “Everybody should be voting.”

“There’s a legitimacy when everyone votes,” says Lowman.