Anyone who has walked past the shirtless Adonis's posted like sentries outside a lower Manhattan Hollister store can see how the commoditized male figure is a kind of flypaper for commerce—but rarely has it found a place in the realm of civic engagement. That is, until last week, when Cosmopolitan magazine announced that they would be sending a #Cosmovotes party bus filled with "snacks, swag, and shirtless male models" to transport young voters at North Carolina State University in Raleigh to off-campus polling sites. A sophomore in the school's student government had entered and won the Cosmo competition. "This election is not a light matter here in NC," he wrote, "The weight is on the students of N.C. State."
The announcement was met with the requisite round of commentary and moral scolding on the Internet, mostly from the Right. The National Review ran a piece called "Nine Insulting Ways Cosmo Is Trying To Get Women To Vote" with lazy critiques about how the magazine was using lowest common denominator pop culture tactics to motivate female Democratic voters. Of course, using sex and bodies to sell a bankrupt system of electoral politics is sad, but no one can accuse Cosmo of not being realpolitik. Besides, women's bodies have been used to "rock the vote" at least since Madonna's 1990 PSA on MTV.
It's unclear whether Cosmopolitan knew how much their bus was genuinely needed. This year, N.C. State's on-campus voting site abruptly disappeared, along with on-campus polling at three other North Carolina universities—Duke, East Carolina University, and UNC-Charlotte—in what voting rights activists allege is a purposeful effort to diminish turnout among young voters. Early voting at historically black colleges like Winston Salem University was also eliminated. Earlier this fall, a Republican-stacked county board of elections in Boone, North Carolina, attempted to get rid of early voting at Appalachian State University, although the scheme—an apparent effort to diminish the youth vote—was overturned by a state judge just in time for the election, in late October.
North Carolina has become a battleground for a kind of national voting rights struggle not seen since the Civil Rights era. In 2013, the state's Republican-controlled General Assembly passed what is widely considered one of the most suppressive voting laws in the country. Among the provisions: early voting was reduced from 17 days to 10 days; same day registration was eliminated; and out-of-precinct votes could no longer be counted. In 2016, voters will be required to show state-issued identification at the polls, although that provision is currently being challenged in court.
Opponents claim that the voting law was an attempt to disenfranchise an increasingly Democratic electorate, noting that extended early voting and same-day registration had dramatically increased turnout in recent elections, before the new measures were passed. "It's clear it's a statewide effort to disenfranchise young people and people of color," said Bryan Perlmutter, the director of IGNITE NC, a student voting rights initiative founded in 2013 in response to the law's passage.
In the meantime, there was mass confusion over the changes in the 2014 elections. Groups like IGNITE, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, and North Carolina's Moral Monday movement spent the summer conducting voter registration and information drives, attempting to counteract the law's potential effect on turnout.
On Election Day, none those groups were out in N.C. State's Wolf Plaza, helping students get to their new polling precinct—a small church hidden deep in a neighborhood a mile from campus. But Cosmopolitan was there, "meeting the people where they were at," as the Communists used to say. And where they were at was trying to eat free roast beef sandwiches and take pictures of themselves nuzzled up against hunks in "Voting is Sexy" tank tops.
"There were supposed to be shirtless guys on the bus. I've heard a lot of disappointed girls saying there were supposed to be shirtless guys," Chanell Bryant, a senior, told me. Regardless, packs of coeds waited for the strobe-lit buses, which looked suspiciously like rented airport rental car shuttles, to pull up, blasting Shakira (Como se llama (si) bonita (si) mi casa (Shakira Shakira).) As one might imagine, a midday party bus without kind of kills the illusion, but the two or three male models onboard did their best to keep the vibe upbeat, dancing around with maracas and tamborines. "Voting is kind of a tedious thing sometime. But this made it really fun and engaging," one rider, a sophomore, told me.
At the Freedom Temple Church polling site, a student named Alyssa Reise told me she had heard about a lot of students who had come out on the bus only to find out that they could only vote in the precinct if they lived on campus. " I think getting rid of the campus polling place has confused a lot of people," she said. One volunteer poll monitor at the site said, "One thing that we've heard from almost everyone we've talked to is that students are disappointed they can't have a place on campus where they can vote anymore. A lot of them don't have easy transportation and so they don't come here."
Even with the party bus, student turnout at N.C. State seemed low, and Cosmo's "voting is sexy" approach seemed strained, at best. In the end, North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis pulled off a narrow victory Tuesday, helping the GOP gain the Senate majority, while his party maintained control of North Carolina's state legislature. Doubtless, much hand-wringing analysis of the effect of the early voting changes on turnout will come. "The effort by the state as a whole to educate the public about this new voting law and the changes has been inadequate," Perlmutter told me.
A spokesman for N.C. State University said that he wasn't sure why the Wake County board of elections had chosen to remove the on-campus polling site. Wake County Board of Elections did not return a phone call asking about the N.C. State University polling site. "The message to young voters is that they have a lot of potential to sway outcomes here. When you have a burgeoning powerful voice, people try to silence that," said Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.