Pranking the Polls

Published in the Register-Guard on April 1, 2016

You may have read recently about long lines of people waiting to vote. It strikes us in Oregon as unthinkable, both morally and logically, to wait in line for five hours to cast our yeas and nays. That was the price of citizenship some paid last month during Arizona’s presidential primary.

Voting is important, but it needn’t be arduous. Oregon voters proved that in 1998, when we passed a ballot measure directing all elections to be conducted by mail. We’re leading the way again this year, with the nation’s first motor-voter law. Oregon became the first state in the nation to implement automatic voter registration at the DMV.

Oregon is a respected leader in expanding access to voting. Unfortunately, many states are moving in the opposite direction. Poll taxes and literacy tests are no longer legal, but new barriers to voting are being dreamed up to take their place.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 21 states have put new voting restrictions into place since the 2010 election. These include strict new voter ID requirements, shortened early voting periods, the elimination of same-day registration, and fewer polling stations. In almost every instance, the new rules were enacted by Republican legislative majorities and/or Republican governors.

In Oregon, we can sit idly by and watch, waiting for our ballots to arrive in the mail so we can fulfill our civic duty without taking off our slippers. But today is April Fools’ Day and we have another reputation to protect. How might Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters have reacted to these anti-democratic initiatives in other states?

Celebrating April Fools’ Day during an election year poses special challenges. Making crank phone calls to strangers, posting embarrassing messages on neighbors’ front lawns, or ringing doorbells and running — these forms of childish mischief could be mistaken for political campaigning.

I needed help. So I called my favorite juggler and street performer to hatch a swing-state prank for November. Rhys Thomas lives in Portland now, but he grew up in Crow. His stepfather was a chief firefighter in rural Lane County. Thomas returns to the Willamette Valley often to visit cousins or to perform his Jugglemania act at the Oregon Country Fair.

Looking those long lines of voters in Arizona, Thomas saw two things. “It’s a farce,” Thomas told me, “and I know something about farces.” But then he saw something else, something more enticing — a captive audience.

Could Oregon export a small army of buskers to key precincts in swing states, where voting might require standing around for hours? We couldn’t make their lines move faster, but we could make the wait more enjoyable! What if clowns could make those long lines into impromptu street parties?

It would attract TV cameras, quickly becoming the talk of the town. A few extra people might show up to vote, with many fewer leaving in frustration. That, in turn, would make some powerful people very unhappy, which is exactly what a good prank should do.

Political speech is strictly forbidden near polling places, but that won’t be a problem. In fact, it could make it all the more fun. “I have a bit that involves a combover,” Thomas offered. “Would that be political speech?” Watching the regulators trying to regulate could easily become part of the show. Can you find the clown in this picture?

“People appreciate having someone to laugh with, instead of just at. A larger audience has a more participatory dynamic,” according to Thomas — it’s just more fun for everyone.

Thomas estimated he could round up several dozen performers. All we need is an eccentric billionaire with a SuperPAC, who would be willing to underwrite travel expenses. A quick trip in November to mostly southern states, performing for people who are stuck in line for hours on end — that doesn’t sound like a tough sell. “Would it be a problem if some of the performers were from Canada?” Thomas asked.

Then he answered his own question, “Nah, that might be good. Depending on how the election turns out, people might be glad to know somebody in Canada.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.