lulu Fries'dat is a documentary filmmaker whose new film, "Holler Back: (Not) Voting in an American Town," takes on the topic of why half of eligible voters in this country don't vote. She stopped by before her film showed last week as part of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival.
So you grew up near here?
I grew up in Oroville, on Highway 70. My dad and his family still live up there, and my sister and her family live down in San Francisco.
What was your inspiration for making this film?
I had a band in New York. When we would have gigs, I would have voter registration forms and get people registered. I would have conversations with people who don't vote, and the same things would emerge over and over again. People who are disengaged are disengaged for certain reasons. They don't believe that their votes are actually going to be counted, they think the system is rigged, they think that money is really more influential, they don't care for the candidates, they think the candidates are dishonest.
When you do talk to people who do vote, it's a very different perspective. They often have a very negative view of people who don't vote. They'll use words like "apathetic," "uninformed," "lazy." I started to get this picture of two very disconnected worlds, and I wanted to explore the bridge between those worlds. How is it that a person becomes either a voter or a non voter? What's interesting is that both acknowledge that the system is very dysfunctional. But often people who vote, especially activists, have this burning desire to fix the system. People who don't vote look get the exact same problems, walk away and say 'That's a mess I can't deal with.'
How do you fix these things?
Change happens slowly, incrementally. We get really frustrated because we don't see things happening immediately. When you look at the changes that have happened in our democracy since it was initiated, these are huge things. When we first started the country, white property owner males voted. We have a son of mixed race running for president right now. That would have been unheard of 100 years ago. There is progress.
I do believe the Electoral College can be changed. You could do it state by state. You get California and Texas both at the same time to switch to proportional representation instead of winner take all, now you've got two more states in play. All the Republicans in California will now feel like their votes count. In 32 states right now, during the general election, people feel their vote doesn't count. What you saw with the Democratic primary, they did a proportional system. That's why you saw that race go on and on, state after state, because it was close, people got involved, and people got excited. The more people have an informed participation, the easier it's going to be for us to solve these big problems.
To what extent do people underestimate or overestimate how much non-voters don't know?
We're not teaching civics in the school system anymore. If people do not understand how their government works, there is no way they're going to be able participate in it. There are great civics programs that have been developed into a really cool program called "We the People." I talked to a girl who had graduated from that program in high school, and she went on to do an internship with Congressman [Rush] Holt. You could tell that one class had completely changed her whole outlook, and she wound up thinking that she was going go to law school or wind up participating in the political process. Somebody like you, I would imagine your family was involved in politics.
Not to the extent I am, but they're certainly informed and read newspapers.
So you're going get that at home. What happens with generation after generation of people whose parents vote, they vote. Politics is part of their world as they're growing up – your mom writes a letter to the editor, your dad goes to a protest. People whose parents don't vote, they don't vote. The only way you can break that cycle is with education.
But when we teach civics in school, it's important that it be fun. This woman Katherine [in the film], her father was very active in politics, but it was an angry politics that really turned her off.
In the late 1800s, we had 80 percent participation in this country. From about the end of the Civil War, to about the 1890s, we really had a lot of voter registration. Third parties were extremely active all of the country, and they were viable candidates. People were motivated to come out and vote for them. We could achieve that again with more civics and targeted reforms.
The other thing that really becomes huge is, do you feel like the political world is serving your community well? If you see people feel like their needs are not being met, they will not participate, because the system has basically let them down. It's kind of a flip-off. People who say "I'm not going to participate because those people don't care about me," have no idea that they're really just playing into the hand of the people who in general are running our political process, because those people may not want them to be engaged. You're being played.
I would love it if more people voted, but I also feel like many people who do vote aren't very well informed.
Absolutely. It's hard for people to get informed when the media does not really have that as a goal. The goal of the media is to get high ratings and to make money. That's a conflict of interest. Curtis Gans from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate recommends that we mandate election coverage for the TV networks. TV networks are not going to cover issues unless you make them at this point, because they can't make money on it. Part of a functioning media is to inform the public, and approximately 50 percent of the public gets their information on elections from the TV. TV news, in the last election cycle, spent on average five minutes a night on issues the last thirty days.