November 8 is the day that American voters have all been waiting for. Scratch that: exit polling Tuesday night says we just want this campaign season to be over. But most of us at least had the catharsis of casting a ballot. Millions of people living in the U.S., however, didn’t have that option. Whether they’re formerly incarcerated, immigrants, citizens in U.S. territories, or too young, millions of people here don’t have the right to vote.
The Unofficial Official Voting Station, a six-month interactive exhibition at Jane Addams Hull House Museum, was artist Aram Han Sifuentes’s reaction to that reality. The exhibit features two voting booths where disenfranchised people have the option to cast a symbolic vote for president, participating in an unsanctioned piece of the political process.
On Tuesday, the exhibit was lit with pastel blues, pinks, and purples to match the unofficial ballots. “VOTED BUT NOT COUNTED” read one of the hanging banners. “I COUNT!” read ballots in white bubble letters.
Sifuentes, a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, immigrated from South Korea with her family in 1992, and, as a resident alien, is barred from voting in any U.S. election.
She conceived of the project while drinking with friends.
“Man, wouldn’t it be crazy if I created a project where I could vote?” she says she thought at the time.
From that night, the project grew exponentially, with diverse installations and interactive voting in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Ithaca, Detroit, Mexico City, Acapulco, and Tijuana. With the help of 15 collaborators, all ballots will be returned to Hull House, where they will be displayed as part of the installation.
“Voto Illegal” in Mexico City had participants vote with fake blood. Mexico City, Tijuana, and Acapulco created Styrofoam heads of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, allowing voters to vote against candidates by screwing a screw or Mexican flag into the sculptures. In Tijuana, collaborators then threw the heads over the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although Ivana Rihter, a 20-year-old journalism student at DePaul University, moved to the U.S. from Toronto when she was six years old, she’s not a U.S. citizen.
“It feels so awful to not be a part of this history,” she said. “Especially with this election, it’s such a huge, monumental shift in this country. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Casting a symbolic vote helps some. “My vote changed the little chalkboard number here, so it somewhat counts now,” she said.
Alejandra Perez, a Peruvian international student at SAIC, participated in the event because she has become acquainted with the Latinx communities of Chicago, and saw Sifuentes, her professor, grapple with her citizenship status.
“There’s a large community of people here that don’t get to vote,” Perez said. “They live here, so the consequences of whatever the government decides will apply directly to them.” Although Perez says she doesn’t plan to apply for citizenship, she thinks “it’s important to give those people a voice.”
The evening ended at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with an event Sifuentes described as a “viewing-party shit-show extravaganza.” Trump and Clinton piñatas hung from the ceiling, and DJ Sadie Rock blasted liberation-themed tunes in front of a screen illuminated by CNN’s talking heads.
“People who can’t vote are actually really energized and on fire to make sure that we can do everything we can to stop this fucker,” said party attendee Mark Jeffrey, pointing to the Trump piñata hanging from the ceiling.
— Jack (@chicagoladd) November 9, 2016
Jeffrey came to the U.S. from the UK nearly 20 years ago, and has lived in the U.S. with two J-1 visas, three H-1B visas, and, now, a green card. Frustrated by his inability to vote against Trump, Mark has turned to activism. He’s hosted three dinners to get out the vote for Hillary Clinton, and has volunteered at phone banks every Monday night for the past nine weeks.
At one point, Sifuentes climbed the stage in her American-flag-print leggings, fuzzy black jacket, and sunglasses to read a few of the hundreds of symbolic ballots that had been cast that night. Highlights included 12- year-olds voting, a myriad of “Fuck Donald Trump” variations, ballots cast entirely in Spanish, and a heartfelt note from a noncitizen about the importance of voting.
She then rapped “I’m in love with the voto”—her take on “CoCo” by O.T. Genasis.
Then, Sifuentes’s partner and collaborator, Roberto Sifuentes, took to the floor with his bandanna pulled over his eyes and a bat in hand, as fellow collaborators grabbed the ropes suspending the presidential piñatas. Both candidates were lowered, and then pulled up again, as Roberto swung his bat. Clinton lost most of her appendages while Trump was decapitated. Red, white, and blue balloons fell from the balcony as participants scrambled for candy on the museum floor.
“Being disenfranchised, we’re silent,” Aram Sifuentes said. “We’re invisible. So, for a day, at these stations, we have a place to be visible and voice ourselves, even though it’s just a gesture.”