Postcards to Presidents Reveal What Americans Care About

Sheryl Oring travels the country with the hope of ‘activating democracy’ by encouraging people to send their stories to candidates.
Kids writing postcards in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy Sheryl Oring)
Oct 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

In the midst of a turbulent election season, issues that affect the public often get pushed aside for discussion of sensationalized scandals—be it a candidate’s place of birth, rumored affairs, or comments about a beauty queen’s weight. One artist wanted to set aside the media headlines to find out what average Americans are looking for in their next president.

“I was questioning if we really know what Americans think about our candidates,” artist Sheryl Oring said in an interview with TakePart. “I wanted to come up with a way of going around and talking to people who might not normally show up in a news story.”

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For the past four presidential election cycles, Oring has traveled across the country, typewriter in tow, and invited people to compose letters expressing their biggest concerns to the potential next president of the United States. Since 2004, Oring has mailed more than 2,200 postcards to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and their opponents. For this year’s election, Orning is visiting at least six states, along with Washington, D.C., to collect letters to send to presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Oring has also kept copies of the postcards for herself. Next week, she’s set to release Activating Democracy: The “I Wish to Say” Project, a collection of the letters featured alongside portraits of their writers.

Pat Myren’s postcard; Myren. (Photos: Courtesy Damaso Reyes)

Composing a postcard by dictating one’s thoughts to a typist might sound outdated and cumbersome, but Oring feels that asking participants to step back from technology fosters considered responses.

“What I tend to find is that the presence of the human being, sitting there at the typewriter taking down someone’s thoughts, really leads that person who’s sharing their ideas and beliefs and such to be thoughtful about what they say,” Oring said. “People are a little bit more thoughtful with me than I think they are in online forums or things like that.”

Rather than an expletive-filled tweet or a lengthy Facebook rant, the postcards showcase personal stories that get to the heart of issues voters care about. Some postcards, like one about a woman’s desire to marry her longtime female partner, highlight how America has changed in the past decade. Other complaints, such as about mountains of student loan debt, continue to affect the electorate.

Henry Murphy II’s postcard; Murphy. (Photos: Courtesy Sheryl Oring)

Although concerns regarding health care costs and unemployment remain, the 2016 election has brought a new wave of both voter anxiety and apathy. Clinton and Trump have the lowest favorability ratings among voters since the 1980s and have failed to resonate with millennials.

Oring, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, uses her project to engage college students in the electoral process. She has enlisted 60 students from her school to volunteer with her and has visited campuses in states across the country.

“As I talk to more and more college students, it just feels like the right time to go this direction,” Oring said. “To see the student involvement and watch them get engaged with the issues—it was a very powerful experience.”

Jill’s postcard; Jill. (Photos: Courtesy Dhanraj Emanuel)