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Vote Twice Coupon Art Runs Into Big Guns

November 1992

"This will hurt Real Estate business," warns Mayor

State's Attorney to impound READER

"Like crying 'Wolf' in a loaded theater,"
says City spokesman

In the week before the general election this fall, coupons were being distributed in Chicago which allowed the bearer to "vote twice - - if presented together with a valid Credit Card." Quite slick looking, and sponsored by a group known as "Financing for a Better America," the coupon was actually the work of Ned Schwartz, a Chicago artist and owner of Beret International Gallery.

[] When Ned first showed his "Vote Twice" coupon to friends, he did not think it would be half as effective as his "Tax Abatement" coupons which he had distributed previously in Chicago and New York. But the response proved him wrong -- some people didn't think it was funny at all.

The actual humor of the "Vote Twice" coupon lies in the irony invoked from finding it distributed in a city which has long had a reputation for stuffing ballot boxes with the votes of dead citizens, and in the coupon's officious suggestion that credit card ownership constitutes better citizenship.

But irony is not understood by those against whom it is directed, as became evident from the reaction Ned received when, in addition to passing the coupon out, he placed it as an ad in the Chicago Reader.

The Reader would only accept the ad with Ned's phone number appended -- which Ned did, along with recording a corresponding message for his answering machine. The Reader was distributed on Thursday afternoon in the week before the general election. At 2:00 pm on Friday Ned received a summons to appear immediately before a Grand Jury.

At court, represented by a criminal lawyer, he was threatened by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office with arrest for vote fraud -- concomitant with seclusion for psychiatric evaluation, until the general election (three days away) was over -- if he did not cease distributing the coupons, and change his phone machine message.

At this prospect Ned agreed to stop his art project. I don't blame him, for there would have been nothing to gain if to continue meant being confronted with the punitive power of an established political bureaucracy and the prospect of lengthy and very expensive litigations surrounding the first amendment. When Ned gave in, the State's Attorney also dropped the matter.

The bureaucracy whose nerve had been touched by the ad was the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners -- the official overseers of the local election process. The Board wrote the Cease and Desist Order (issued under its own jurisdiction) and had it presented by the State's Attorney, who had been enlisted to bring persuasive action against Ned.

In addition, the Board attempted to involve the US District Attorney and the FBI. There were even plans afoot to impound the remaining copies of the Reader -- this was mentioned by the State's Attorney's Office, perhaps as proof of the severity of the charges. The Board, in a letter to both the State's Attorney and the US District Attorney, had also urged "taking action" against the publisher, that is, the Reader.

But the Board of Election Commissioners was not meant as the target of this satire. Early on Ned even had thoughts that if anyone would enjoy the humor of the coupon, it would be the Board. You wonder, then, why they reacted with such paranoia. You might think that perhaps the Board consists of the largest group of grade-school dropouts which could be fitted with suits and brought together into one meeting room at City Hall.

But stupidity does not explain the overreaction. The reaction might suggest that perhaps the Board was hiding something, that after the cleaning-up of the open and rampant election fraud of bygone decades in Chicago, the arena of vote fraud had now shifted to a different level within the system.

You could also point out that the State's Attorney's interests in the coupon might have been purely political; after all, State's Attorney Jack O'Malley, who personally attended to the confrontation with Ned Schwartz, was running for re-election, and he may have pursued the matter simply for its press value.

At the least the confrontation demonstrated again that humor is the severest criticism which can be aimed at politicians or bureaucrats, for it presumes something fatuous or dismissable to be at the base of their official activities.

What remains bothersome is how the contention came to the brink of a froth of useless behavior based entirely on moralistic matters. These included the Board of Election Commissioner's frightened reaction, the State's Attorney's legal threats, and Ned Schwartz's calls to the ACLU (who on that Friday afternoon was tied up with other matters), as well as his later complaints that his art had been censored and his First Amendment rights violated. These are the almost predictable responses of individuals of a nation which cannot separate itself from its Puritan origins.

This substitution of high morals for ethics or common sense places both the artist and his audience in a position of demanding more of art than its basic function as cultural observer or cultural irritant.

It suggests that the expression of an opinion or taking a political stance must lead to activism, must express itself in a power play. A common-sense reaction from the State's Attorney's Office should have been a resounding laugh.

In fact, one investigator from the US District Attorney's Office did exactly that. But there seemed to be no recognition by the Board of Election Commissioners that "certainly everyone knows that you cannot vote twice," and that an expression of this fact would simply have ended the matter. Nor did the State's Attorney's office seem to have any awareness that threatening someone with arrest and detainment is certainly unethical if not illegal.

Moralizing is the American fall-back position; it comes to the foreground with the lack of ethics or sensible judgment. This indictment was certainly the first intended reading for the "Vote Twice" coupon, except that it was not aimed at bureaucrats, but at the public.

What we can learn from any art in the future is what can be read from its record. For the "Vote Twice" coupon this was to be only the tale which told of its execution. The original purpose was just to have a "good story" to talk about or think about.

This is the standing metaphor of all art: the creation of a reflective or absorbing object for future contemplative consideration. The unexpected reaction and the unintended publicity rewrote the original script for the coupon distribution -- redirected the critique from citizens to government.


On Tuesday of the general election the story of the coupons hit page 12 of the Chicago Sun-Times, after having been featured in previous days on one of the evening TV newscasts, a radio station, and hinted at in two gossip columns.

Interestingly, during an unrelated interview Mayor Daley noted that he would like to know who was responsible for the anonymous and illegitimate "Tax Abatement" notices which had been distributed a few weeks earlier.

- Jno Cook

Originally published in Candy May 1993

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