When was the last time you took a break from shopping to vote—without leaving the mall? Have you ever picked up a gallon of milk from the same place you voted? How about hanging out with a friend—and voting in his kitchen?
The photographer Michael Mergen was on assignment in 2004 covering the election between George W. Bush and John Kerry in Philadelphia when he stumbled upon a polling center inside a barbershop. The image stuck in his head, and in 2008 he decided to focus less on the election and more on unique voting locations. The result is his series of photographs appropriately titled Vote.
Mergen’s work began with a list of around 1,100 voting locations he culled down to include only privately owned spaces being used as polling centers, including pizza shops, funeral homes, a roller rink, and even private homes.
After 2008, Mergen put the project on hold but was inspired by a professor while pursuing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design to expand the series nationally. Mergen then contacted secretaries of state to obtain statewide voting-location lists, searched county by county, and tracked locations by reading newspaper websites. He then edited down the lists, plotted the locations that appealed to him into a Google map, and edited the list based on proximity to get the most shots in the quickest amount of time.
Does Mergen feel voting in specific locations can influence an election? He’s not sure. “The clash of public and private—public voting, public government—taking place in privately owned spaces is really at the heart of the project,” Mergen said. “It raises issues of the consumer citizen and this increasingly blurred line between the roles of the individual capitalist we each assume in some way, versus the inherently public, almost socialist act of voting.”
Or maybe Americans are just getting lazy. Mergen mentioned that while speaking to poll workers in Nevada, the reason cited for early voting in supermarkets was simply to bring voting to the people. And for the businesses that house these voting locations, there’s the added bonus that the voter might take home something.
“I think for the businesses, it’s a mixture of altruism and civic pride,” said Mergen. “If you stop to vote but happen to walk out with a case of Gatorade, I’m sure that’s fine by the store.”
Mergen is currently an assistant professor of art and photography at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. His work is rooted in ideas about American civics, government, and politics.
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