Q&A with ‘Vote Here’ filmmaker Steve Waxman

By Joe Giddens

This Q&A was originally made for a Tucson Weekly Story available here: https://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2020/10/02/tucson-filmmakers-highlight-the-history-of-voting-in-new-documentary

Filmmaker Steve Waxman has released his new documentary, “Vote Here”, to inspire voter turnout this year and provide some historical insights into political movements wanting to engage the youth vote.

What was the inspiration for this project?

 I just felt that voting is the essence of democracy and I’ve always been big on voting. I felt that this country, if it had a little bit more of a civic background on the evolution of voting, might understand the sacrifices other people made and realize that the more people who participate, the more people who decide.

What was the process that you took to put this together?

I read a book by Michael Waldman from the Brennan Center for Justice called “The Fight to Vote” and I became fascinated by the anecdotal stories and just the evolution of voting: how it started off and how it changed over the centuries; who was allowed to vote and who was prohibited from voting.

 I was trying to get a cast that would represent the demographics of America and I wound up getting a lot of white men. Ironically, it was white men who had the first privilege of voting so I didn’t want the film to be about the mixed demographics of America and then have a cast that didn’t represent them. 

The other thing that happened was the Parkland massacre took place, and that added a whole other element because, usually I’m doing pieces on historical subjects that are closed, whether it’s Prohibition or various other stories that have already been mentioned. What made it so hard and why it took three years is that it kept evolving.

First you had the Parkland, and that was basically about young people mobilizing to get people to vote. And I wanted to also keep the piece nonpartisan. I didn’t want to really do any issues. I wanted to just show the importance of getting out to vote, especially when you are of a younger age because most of the young people do not vote. 

Or so I thought and then I came across Jon Grinspan who wrote the “Virgin Vote”, about how young people voted in great mass (well not females but males) in the 19th century because it was the thing to do. It was the only way that people, as you probably saw from the film, would be able to socialize. There was no Facebook. There were no teams. There was no community centers. So when a political rally would come to town, the boys would come out and the girls would come out to look for the boys or vice versa. One of the things that I was dispelled was the myth that young people were not civically engaged.

 So, each little piece led to another little piece and then I realized that I needed a little bit more gravitas for the female representation and I was able to find Professor Paulson, and she was excellent. She filled in a lot of the court cases and a lot of the perspectives from an African American woman. 

I had to sort of balance out the piece by not looking for token players but getting authentic representation and, as my wife said, if you can capture authenticity, then that will ring true with viewers.

The other thing that I tried to do so that it wouldn’t just be a straight and linear history lesson, I incorporated man and woman on the street interviews of young people and organizations that were using innovative methods and other types of traditional methods to try to get people out to vote, so that that part of the piece would represent the true demographics of America and also keep the piece flowing.

So was making sure to tell the stories of all the different marginalized groups in this country the deciding factor of what went into the film?

Well, it’s certainly played a big part because we never ever wanted everybody to vote, we only wanted the right people to vote. So I mean, you know who determines that and obviously the people in power. 

I always wanted to show how women who represented half the population and who could vote in the early part of the country’s history were forbidden by either constitutional amendments or constitutional conventions of the state. I wanted to show you their story and then, of course, Native Americans, who were here before any of us, and weren’t even considered citizens until around 1924.

 I was very very interested in showing Latino turnout because the Latino community knows so many people who might not be here legally. They are very hesitant to want to turn out and get involved in the system at all, either being concerned that they themselves will be scrutinized or that somebody who they might know would then be scrutinized and deported. So that was a fascinating part to see what was going on to turn out that vote, which is why we interviewed Mi Familia Vota.

It’s one of the things I was unaware of. I realized that apprehension among the Latino community over the census but I didn’t realize that it also extended to voting.

Anytime you get involved with the system and especially if the system has betrayed you before when you play by the rules, you’re very hesitant on trying to use the system to better yourself. And so Mi Familia Vota was a big part and I wanted to thank Bud Foster for that because when I just when I relocated to Tucson, having gone to school at ASU and falling in love with Arizona and then living in Tucson in the ’90s, I wanted to include something of my newly inherited city here. 

I tried to break up the demographics and include the marginalized groups because those are the ones that need to be involved in the system if they’re ever going to change it for better conditions for themselves.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how Parkland inspired parts of the movie?

What I wanted to do was promote their dedication to understanding that by getting involved in the Civic process as soon as you can, you will be able to influence those people that represent you. As one girl said (in the film), “if you’re not talking and you don’t have a voice, they’re not going to listen to you.”

The kids that I saw had such dedication to just registering people to vote. Of course they wanted to follow their political agenda. But that wasn’t my concern. My thing was to see how 14 year olds were telling 17 year olds you can pre-register to vote. 

I thought that this was just a fascinating thing that I had not seen in my lifetime, which was a dedication of young people to make voting part of their cultural DNA before I saw that it had happened already in the 19th century. I found that totally fascinating and a voice that had to be included in the film. 

So how do we get people to vote?

I always thought that hey, if you’re an environmentalist, for example, you’re gonna vote because you want to save the environment. But what I had found out and what I think is true in a transcending way is that the most driving force for people to register to vote, I believe now, is peer pressure.

If you say, “hey, 90% of the people on your block voted. What about you?” Then they get motivated to vote 

Looking at recent headlines of some supporters of certain candidates standing in front of early polling stations, possibly intimidating other voters, I was just wondering if you could draw some historical parallels between the present moment and violence at the polls in the past?

Voting has always been a violent exercise. It’s never been a peaceful exercise and they talked about that in the film. How, when in the 19th century people would question, first of all, who are you voting for. It wasn’t the anonymous ballot. There was a lot of intimidation. There was a lot of alcohol that the political parties were providing in the early days of voting.

So violence at the polls, though we think of it is maybe something unique to this particular period of time, has been part of the American process from almost the beginning, it’s always been.

 Sometimes it was an intimidating process. People calling out other people. “He’s not old enough. He’s not with our party.” So, no, this isn’t a unique scenario. It’s been going on for as long as the country it’s almost been founded.

Well I think that’s one of the things, the last couple of years in particular have shown that the distance between who we are and who we think we are can be pretty great.

There’s always been that contrast between the individualism that people feel they have the right to do what they want, versus some sort of, you know, societal come together moment, which benefits everybody at large. So that’s been the American conflict from day one. And of course, it gets a bit more aggravated now because of the different information sources that are out there. I mean if anything, the coronavirus has exposed that to a great extent.

Your film talks quite a bit about youth turnout. What do you think brought about the decline in the youth turnout?

Well, the film spoke about that and it was quite fascinating. This is a contradiction in human behavior in some ways. Back when the youth turnout was high, why it was high was because the political parties or the political entities were providing food. They were providing alcohol. They were providing fireworks. They were making it more into a social interaction than anything else.

And as Mr. Grinspan said so eloquently, towards the end of the 19th century they did away with the fireworks. They did away with the alcohol. They started providing information and they took all the fun out of getting to these rallies. Plus, there were other things that came came about, distractions like vaudeville and movies. So instead of going to a political rally that was basically turning into just sort of an Information Center, now the youth had other ways to go out and socialize. 

All the things that were lacking for social interaction in the in the mid to late 19th century started to come into vogue in the early 20th century and it changed the whole social dynamic of why people would go to political rallies and why they didn’t anymore.

One of the things I found interesting about the film was when you’re talking about the fractures between the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement. So I’m curious if there are lessons there on how to successfully build a political coalition.

You have to be inclusive and you have to not be afraid of what public opinion is at the time. Instead of subscribing to public opinion you have to change public opinion. And I think that’s the key. I mean, it’s been proven that the African American women have been some of the most stringent voters. And so to exclude them and to to downplay their significance because of their color, it did fracture the movement. But the point is that, to quote Spike Lee, you have to “do the right thing.”

Instead of succumbing to public opinion, you have to change it. That means if you’re for women’s rights, you have to be for all women’s rights, not just women of a certain economic class or of a certain color.

Within Tucson, what are some of the biggest barriers that you see for locals to vote?

As I mentioned before, you don’t know how much the Latino vote and should turn out based on their fear about deportation of relatives or just mistrust of the system.

I think the biggest problem is mistrust of the system. And that’s not necessarily just in Tucson but it gets more exemplified by the fact that we could and should have such an influential Latino community.

Intimidation from outside sources and intimidation from inside sources, meaning your own your own fear about getting involved in the system. That I think is a problem in Tucson and I hope that Mi Familia is overcoming that and getting people to realize that they can change the system by becoming part of the system.

Prior to the pandemic were you going do any local screenings? Are you planning on still finding a way to screen in person yet?

We were gonna enter it in film festivals, but then film festivals are canceled. But we wanted to make the film as free and as accessible as voting. That’s why we put it on YouTube and that’s why we put on Vimeo. We just want it to be out there as a reference so that people can see what other people sacrifice to achieve their right to vote, and to also give them some sort of background education on some of the aspects of our system, whether it’s the electoral college or what gerrymandering is. 

Tell me a little bit more about Shadow Wave Media. 

It started around 2007. And basically, my first film that was on PBS was about prohibition. It was after Ken Burns film came out and we did a piece called “Prohibition & the South Florida Connection.”

I’ve done commercials. I’ve done pieces on the Galapagos Island, but the the four films that I’ve done I’m the proudest of because those were real blood, sweat and tears and that’s basically it.

I’m winding down. This could be my last film.