Oni Press Takes On The Midterm Elections With Draw Out the Vote Project

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Oni Press Takes On The Midterm Elections With <i>Draw Out the Vote</i> Project

From political cartoons to graphic novels, comics about voting and democracy aren’t anything new, but for the first time, a comics publisher has turned to the medium to deliver a free resource for American voters in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). Oni Press launched Draw Out the Vote in September of this year, featuring heartfelt one-page comics from illustrators across the United States and, perhaps more importantly, state-specific information guiding readers through the entire voting process, from registration to election day, and how to get involved in your community before the election and after.

Draw Out the Vote is a monumental project: conceived by publisher James Lucas Jones, it quickly became a major focus for Oni senior editor Robin Herrera. “When he initially told me the idea, I immediately began to think of ways to implement it and calculated how much of my workload it would take up,” Herrera said. “For this project, because of its timeliness and importance, I decided I would spend outside work hours on it to make sure it got finished as quickly as possible. If there was a chance it could make a difference in the 2018 elections—even a small difference—I considered it time well-spent.”

A project the scale of Draw Out the Vote sits square in the center of a Venn diagram of some of the most frustrating efforts of both comics and political organizing: anthologies and multi-state turnout efforts. Rather than have a team of creators attempt to put together a one-size-fits-all entreaty to vote, Herrera took to her own network and social media to recruit a team of creators from every state who could create personal stories of how voting impacts them—stories specific to their lives and each state.

“My rolodex at Oni is also skewed white, cis, straight and male, so I knew I would need to branch out,” Herrera explained. “I used a variety of resources to find other cartoonists: Twitter, the Creators of Color database [editor’s note: a resource created by illustrator MariNaomi that, along with its sibling database Queer Cartoonists, allows creators to self-submit and serves as a resource for hiring publishers or independent creators], and references from my fellow editors. The most helpful resource was a form we created, which people were invited to fill out with their states of residence and portfolio information.”

The result is a collection of comics that cross genres and explore reactions to voting, and sometimes the state of politics in America more broadly, across the emotional spectrum. The personal story is a tried-and-true medium for driving change among activists, and Herrera’s work on Draw Out the Vote has collected 50 of them from states as blue as California and as red as Arkansas. Every voice counts, with every illustrator bringing their own experiences and motivations to the table to inspire voters to make use of the information laid out beneath each comic.

There are plenty of sites that will give you a quick and dirty look at voting basics: your registration status, your polling place, basic deadlines. But there are more complicating factors to voting, such as felon rights restoration or even what can be worn inside a polling place, that are often murky and handled on a case-by-case basis down to the county level in each state. In addition to managing the anthology of comics, Herrera and the Draw Out the Vote team put together information that details some of these particularly tricky local laws. In Texas, for example, voters are barred from wearing campaign memorabilia like t-shirts and buttons inside a polling place (a restriction tied to similar, common restrictions on how far away political yard signs or candidate volunteers can be stationed outside a polling place) but voters in New Jersey are welcome to do so. In Washington state, there are separate registration dates for mail-in and in-person voter registration—in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, voters can register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time in-person on election day.

To ensure the information was accurate and, most importantly, easily digested, Herrera teamed up with Henry Kraemer, a voting rights activist who has worked for Oregon’s The Bus Project, a progressive nonprofit organization that focuses on civic engagement. “Henry has worked for The Bus Project, an organization that focuses on voting laws and increasing voter turnout (especially with younger generations), and has done lots of other work around politics and voting, so I knew he’d have a good idea of where to hunt down this information. Having him on board was amazing,” said Herrera. “He distilled the info for each and every state into easy-to-understand steps and how-tos. This project definitely wouldn’t have come together without his involvement.”

On the actual compiling of the information, Herrera added: “I think it was more tedious than difficult for Henry to compile all the information. Voting is different in every state, and sometimes, even in every individual county within a state! Florida and Texas, for example, have registrations that differ by county, so Henry had to include ALL OF THEM. And both states have tons of counties, of course.” Courtesy of the Movement Voter Project, Draw Out the Vote also offers links to local organizations interested readers can join to make a direct impact in their community, such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition or North Dakota Native Voice.

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Draw Out the Vote Logo via Oni Press

But the bright side of compiling such a comprehensive database is that it can exist until Oni decides it shouldn’t exist anymore. Website designers Rich Stevens and Jason Alderman created a clean, straightforward site that offers easy navigation and can be maintained when voting laws change—as they often do—through future election cycles. And many of the Oni comics are timeless reflections of personal or community struggles that exist across generations, such as illustrator Kiku Hughes’ work about her great-grandparents’ experiences as Japanese immigrants in America in 1941.

Herrera doesn’t consider the project a one-off for Oni, either. When asked if there’s an opportunity for Oni to do similar projects for future elections, or even specific issues, Herrera said, “Absolutely. Given that some of the comics are very specific to the 2018 election, I think it would be good to update the project as we go. And there are people whose voices I would like to add to the project, given the issues that come up. When I was first casting, I was very aware of Trump’s ‘border wall’ and wanted to get more Latinx (and specifically Mexican) voices. With the recent news about Trump’s policy changes specifically affecting trans folks, I would want to get more trans cartoonists—especially trans women of color.”

This perspective, tied to a site with such comprehensive information about elections, is what makes Draw Out the Vote unique amongst similar projects. Though Marvel has published similar one-off issues, such as the November 2016 issue of Ms. Marvel that centered on Kamala encouraging her dispassionate neighbors to turn out in a race between unnamed candidates, no comics publisher has delivered a resource this comprehensive or as explicitly political. Publishers like Image Comics have done fundraisers for progressive organizations, and anthologies like Mine! have taken on specific issues for specific organizations like Planned Parenthood, but Oni Press is the first to deliver this kind of comprehensive, turnout-driven project, centered around marginalized voices and the disproportionate impact American elections often have on them and their communities.

Oni is also a rare bird in political circles—there are few national organizations that spare much time for deep-red states like Mississippi or Alabama, where statewide elections often feel like a lost cause and vitally important local elections slip under the radar. Where politics is often a game of money and data—neither of which are very plentiful for Democrats in Republican strongholds—a project like Draw Out the Vote allows creators from these states to reach out to their fellows and let them know they’re seen, and that their voices can still make a massive impact close to home.

“First of all, I think comic artists have the great ability to infuse their comics with empathy. When I first envisioned the project, I wanted to get cartoonists sharing their personal experiences, to maybe give people a perspective they haven’t seen before. Second, comics are easier to read than prose,” Herrera said of why comics is such a strong medium for a project like Draw Out the Vote. “Given the nature of especially webcomics, I wanted something that was mostly visual and easily shareable. Third, making it anthology style—one cartoonist per state—means we get 52 different perspectives. That’s my favorite aspect of the project, the fact that we got so many different voices involved.”

Brief interviews spotlighting five creators from Draw Out the Vote can be found below, with creators from across the country—red states, blue states, swing states, states with races that have gotten national attention and states facing down local efforts to roll back access to reproductive rights. You can read the full collection of comics on the Draw Out the Vote website.

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Draw Out the Vote: Alabama Art by Rii Abrego

Rii Abrego, Alabama
Rii Abrego is a Southern Chicanx illustrator and comic artist who has done work for BOOM! Studios, Harmonix, Kazoo Magazine and anthologies such as Heartwood and the Eisner-winning ELEMENTS: Earth. Their Alabama short for Draw Out the Vote explores the feeling of being left behind by a state that refuses to move forward, and the importance of community and activism year-round when elections can sometimes feel out of reach.

Paste: People don’t often think much about states like Alabama when it comes to get-out-the-vote efforts—what does it mean to you to have a project like Draw Out The Vote, that wants to give a voice to creators in every state, not just “important” states or progressive states?

Rii Abrego: It genuinely means a lot. I feel like when I see southern states being discussed, it’s often done in a sort of hopeless, dismissive way—we’re viewed as lost causes, and our states are seen as unrivaled bastions of bigotry. What isn’t usually brought up is the fact that the south is one of the most diverse regions of the US, and we have a vibrant LGBTQ+ community in many areas. The problem with the south isn’t that it’s made up of strictly white, straight, cis, conservative voices—it’s that those voices are in power and continue to silence others through fear and suppression.

Giving us a chance to be heard on our own terms is a huge deal, because when our voices come together you start to see real, tangible change. It gives other regions the chance to see us as potential allies that need support rather than adversaries that need to be defeated. I’m very grateful that this project went out of its way to make sure we weren’t excluded.

Paste: When you joined the Draw Out The Vote project, did you know right away what you wanted your comic to focus on, or was it tough coming up with a “get out the vote” message for Alabama?

Abrego: The basic idea was easy, but deciding how to keep it simple was difficult! Our situation is so complex, even now I’m not sure I said enough.

Paste: Are there any elections in Alabama (statewide or locally) that you’re especially excited about?

Abrego More than having something I feel especially excited about, there are things that I feel especially passionate about fighting. The first thing that comes to mind is that in the upcoming midterms we’ll be voting on an amendment that has the goal of no longer protecting the right to an abortion in Alabama. There are a lot of terrifying implications in a decision like that, so right now people are scrambling to get the word out. Things are tense, but we’re staying hopeful!

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Draw Out the Vote: Georgia Art by Rashad Doucet

Rashad Doucet, Georgia
Rashad Doucet is a New Orleans native and current Savannah, Georgia, resident who has worked for Oni Press, DC Comics, Devil’s Due Digital and the Eisner-nominated ELEMENTS anthology. Doucet’s Georgia short invokes the Nazi-punching vibes of old capes comics with Lady K, a superhero full of heart who channels her hopefulness for the future in an explosive battle against nefarious forces who hope to capitalize on voters’ frustrations to drive them away from the polls.

Paste: Your comic is so powerful! Honestly Lady K’s line, “Who’d have thought that as you choke me you cared how I felt” really hit me. Do you feel like that “why do you even vote” sentiment has gotten more pervasive in recent years?

Rashad Doucet: Thanks, and to be honest, I wanted to address my own feelings with that line. It’s something I’ve felt since I was 18. That the differences between the two big teams have always been minuscule and filled with low expectations for actual results. However that’s changed greatly, [both] within me and, I believe, with others who think similarly, in the last few years. My friends and family have all gotten more involved locally and not just for the presidential race.

Paste: What’s it like to get to represent Georgia in a project like this, especially with such a hotly contested Governor’s race on the ballot?

Doucet: I feel honored to do so. I know this race is a big one for a good bit of reasons and really wanted to express something that everyone can actually agree on without denying or marginalizing anyone’s rights. The world right now seems to enjoy superheroes and they get everyone on the same page, like in the old comics during World War II. We may not always be able to agree on everything, but at the very least we should be able to agree that as long as someone or [some] group isn’t causing harm to themselves or others, then we should all have the same rights and privileges as citizens of this country. If we continue to strive for it, America’s greatest years aren’t in the past but waiting for us in the future.

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Draw Out the Vote: Oregon Art by Joamette Gil

Joamette Gil, Oregon
Joamette Gil is a queer Afro-Cuban cartoonist and an award-winning publisher/editor of Power & Magic Press, the publisher of the Power & Magic and Heartwood anthologies. Her Oregon short for Draw Out the Vote explores her personal story as a former non-voter revisiting her stance in the wake of the 2016 elections.

Paste Magazine: Being up front about previously not voting in a project like this is a really powerful message. Did you know right away that was what you wanted to focus on when you joined the project?

Joamette Gil: Yes, and I was scared the whole way through, haha. Even knowing my vote wouldn’t have changed anything in 2016—not in Oregon, anyway—it was impossible not to feel like I’d done something wrong. In many ways, the trajectory of this country’s entire history lead to someone like Trump taking office, but I find that blaming oneself for big problems can help one feel more in control of them. If you had the power to break something, you have the power to fix it, right? My disillusionment with the electoral process is still firmly intact, but I now firmly believe that voting must be done even if only as a defensive strategy. There are things voting can’t (and won’t) fix, and there are certain people who are worse to allow near power than others.

Paste: Do you think there’s a better way for campaigns and organizations to help inspire non-voters to vote? It’s tough—yes, you absolutely want folks to feel obligated to vote because it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes it feels like people want to invest more time convincing people who don’t agree with them politically to change their minds than they are in figuring out why people who do agree with them aren’t motivated by their candidate.

Gil: “It’s complicated” is the real answer, I guess. I’m not sure that either exercise—debating people on the opposite end of the political spectrum, or trying to get like-minded folks excited about one candidate or another—really addresses the core issues of voter suppression and the complacency that comes with privilege. For many, the party in charge at any given time doesn’t actually affect their material circumstances to any significant degree, so why bother? Still for others, their desire to vote either (a) is made irrelevant through suppressive measures such as voter ID laws, gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, etc; or (b) has been utterly quelled by the (repeatedly validated) belief that they don’t matter to whoever is in office at any given time.

One thing’s for sure: the easier something is, the more likely people are to do it. Oregon does automatic voter registration now, as well as mail-in ballots (by default, not request). As for excitement, I think that might be part of the problem: voting out of a sense of inspiration or excitement for a figure, rather than a sense of your own power. Every official I voted for in the midterms comes off to me like wet toast—wet toast that isn’t threatening to take away the things I hold dear. Wet toast that we can push, through activism and direct action, even further left, into real change.

Paste: As an anthology editor yourself, why do you think comics as a medium is so well suited to a project like Draw Out the Vote?

Gil: Text alone has a hard time standing out these days, so comics is a great way to grab folks’ attention regarding any subject, really. With something like voting, it’s also unexpected (we don’t expect politics to come in an approachable package)! If you’re not particularly enthused about it, finding a piece of media you enjoy that both encourages the process and offers supplemental information to demystify things can make it all seem a heck of a lot more doable.

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Draw Out the Vote: North Carolina Art by Bridgit Connell

Bridgit Connell, North Carolina
Bridgit Connell is a North Carolina-based comic book writer and illustrator who recently released her book Brother Nash through Titan Comics. She has also worked for Full Moon Features and done Marvel movie sketch cards for Upper Deck Entertainment. Her North Carolina short is one of the most locally focused of Draw Out the Vote, detailing the fight to block and later repeal North Carolina’s notorious anti-trans bathroom bill, HB2.

Paste Magazine: Your work focused on HB2, and specifically how difficult it was to fight the bill at the legislative level. When you joined Draw Out the Vote, did you know pretty quickly that you wanted to focus on the fight to repeal HB2?

Bridgit Connell: Totally. It’s been one of the bigger political stories that’s unraveled in our state, and one that—once it was repealed—wasn’t covered as efficiently. I wanted to really investigate the details of everything that happened. The press it originally received nationwide was astounding and I also wanted to look at the extent of the feedback and who all took a stance on the matter.

Paste: Politics often focuses on big races—governor, or usually federal races like the senate or presidency. How important do you think a project like Draw Out the Vote is in helping folks understand how vital local races are to their everyday lives?

Connell: I for one am learning a lot not just from Draw Out the Vote but from the antics our political system is getting into at the moment. In my story, the vote on the original bill ends up being futile, because the majority in the room meets up beforehand in these secret meetings, decides they’re going to vote, then gives the minority a few moments to make a decision. The Democrats just walked out in protest, because they knew their vote wasn’t going to matter since they were so outnumbered.

If we really want people to represent us, we need to make sure that our ideas and beliefs don’t have to walk out of the room during such an important vote. I feel like this sort of impasse has been running rampant in our political system as of late, especially during the Dr. Ford hearing we recently witnessed. That vote made me sick to my stomach. The Republicans—making up their minds before they even heard the accounts—were an immovable force. We need political thinkers in that room, not political minions.

Paste: To my knowledge this is the first large-scale elections project from a bigger publisher focusing on voting in a really personal way—publishers have done very general “go vote” and fundraising for specific organizations, but nothing quite like this. Do you think there’s room for more projects like this in comics?

Connell: Oh absolutely! The political climate seems to be changing. I hope this has helped anyone not so politically inclined to learn not only that their voice matters but that it’s important that they are heard!

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Draw Out the Vote: Texas Art by Gaby Epstein

Gaby Epstein, Texas
Gaby Epstein is an Austin-based illustrator and comic artist currently represented by Steven Salpeter at Curtis Brown. In their Texas short, Gaby explores the anxiety of moving somewhere that feels ideologically homogeneous in the worst way, and what it meant when they began working next door to a field office for Democratic nominee for Senate, Beto O’Rourke.

Paste Magazine: You mentioned in your work being a little surprised when you found out how progressive parts of Texas are. Do you think a project like Draw Out the Vote, spotlighting marginalized voices from across the US to talk about voting, can help change that perception that some states are just too conservative for progressives to care about?

Gaby Epstein: That’s a tricky question, because while I do agree there is a pervasive issue of “triage” mentality among progressives, I don’t think projects like this are designed to combat that specifically. Ultimately, I think Draw Out the Vote is less about convincing progressives to widen their perspective so much as it is about rekindling hope within those on the periphery that change can be made. To know that you have untapped political power, and that others around you are standing together to take action, is an inspiring thing. Draw Out the Vote puts faces to the resistance, which helps bring home the truth that change is not a far-off dream or a hashtag on Twitter, but a movement anyone can get behind.

Paste: In that vein, what was it like to get to contribute to Draw Out the Vote and have the opportunity to represent Texas, especially during this election cycle?

Epstein: It felt empowering to be able to contribute to a nation-wide conversation through my art. I used to make political cartoons when I was in high school for local PA papers, but I never had the immediate feedback of social media or feeling like I was part of something bigger. Now, it truly feels like I’m an extension of a grander political shift. I’m happy to have had the chance to represent Texas because I consider it my new home and I want people to see it less as a monolith standing in the way of progress, but as the base of political resistance it has always been.

Paste: And—I’m curious!—did you ever happen to show any of the folks at the Beto office your work? (Honestly as a former organizer myself it would be amazing to have something like your comic to hang up!)

Epstein: I did! I went back to the office by the cafe I mentioned in the comic and gave them some copies. Hopefully they’ll find a use for them!

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Still unsure? Oni Senior Editor Robin Herrera offered these words for people uncertain about whether or not to turn out in the November 6 midterms, or who need a little advice on how to get their friends and family to the polls on election day: “This one is tough, because every person is different and tactics that work well with some people will not work with others. But making voting into a group activity seems to help, so if the person who’s on the fence lives near me, I’d invite them to come with me to vote, or to fill out our ballots together (since in Oregon we get mailed ballots). If they live somewhere else, I’d try to find someone who lives nearby who could go with them, or else encourage them to go with a friend. Voting is a big deal and it’s easier to conquer when you aren’t alone. If you’re planning on voting, make sure to ask your friends if they are, as well. Invite them out to vote with you, or invite them to come research candidates so you’re all prepared. Voting in a booth or on your ballot may be private, but there’s no reason the act of voting can’t be social.”

For more information about voting in your state, including how to look up your polling place and what to expect when voting in person, visit your state’s page on the Draw Out the Vote website. For more information about in-person voting on election day, you can also check out CNN’s Here’s what to do if you’re turned away at the polls guide, which includes the Election Protection hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE, or the ACLU’s guidelines for dealing with voter intimidation.

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