This Tuesday, you won’t find me at the nearest polling place.
Despite all the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) college and university-wide events I passed by. Despite all hundreds of Facebook ads I perused. Despite all the campaign mailers I received from Linda McMahon.
I won’t be casting a ballot because I can’t.
Many of my friends and classmates are surprised to discover that I am not actually a U.S. citizen. To them, I seem like a civically minded American. In 2008, I canvassed for Barack Obama. In 2010, I covered the midterm election for a public radio station in my hometown. In 2012, I researched GOTV strategies for political scientists and contributed to the News’ coverage of the election as a multimedia editor. But unfortunately, I only have a green card.
Like the 17 percent of Yalies who are international students, I can’t vote. But to those of you who can, please vote today.
Maybe I’m too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about democracy in the U.S. Then again, few Americans know what it is like to live in autocracies. Growing up in China, you become a political cynic by age 7. The well-connected join the Communist Party to later “dang guan” — that is, to move up the government’s bureaucratic ladder. “You need to an envelope of cash or a large pack of cigarettes to get anything done here,” my grandmother would often joke.
When my family moved to America, I began third grade, where I learned about democracy for the first time in my social studies class. The idea sounded foreign and wonderful to me. Citizens can hold their leaders accountable, legislators can openly debate about policy and even a peanut farmer can become a president.
Though my parents dutifully paid their taxes, they couldn’t vote. Democracy still remained an abstract idea until senior year of high school. Desperate to receive a green card so I could receive financial aid for college, I wrote my Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-FL, to expedite my family’s immigration process. Instead of unanswered emails, I received several helpful phone calls from Castor’s aides. A month later, my family received our green cards. No envelopes of cash required.
I am not writing an encomium of American democracy. Political dynasties still exist. Corporations can raise unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates. Overly aggressive voter fraud laws discriminate against citizens in several states. But despite all of these problems with our political system, Americans should feel proud that they can participate in fair and free elections today.
During my two years as a research assistant for professor Nikolay Marinov, I worked on a data set covering every election in the world since 2000. I noted a curious phenomenon. Ordinary people in illiberal democracies turn up in large numbers for elections. Sometimes they risk their lives to cast a ballot or to protest election fraud. I often wonder what drives these people to vote — even when they are fighting uphill battles against crony politicians and unfair electoral procedures. Perhaps they sincerely believe their voice, however marginalized, can improve their countries’ political institutions.
The Yale voter doesn’t travel dozens of miles across muddy roads to vote. She isn’t concerned about getting beat up for voting for the wrong person. Her choices are not between a semi-dictator and a corrupt tycoon. As a friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “It’s worth remembering how exceptional it is that we determine who governs us. Our leaders stress about growing our economy, not building themselves bigger palaces.” So appreciate the admirable imperfection that is American democracy because you have the power to transform it at the ballot box.
I’ll be voting in 2014. I hope you’ll vote today.
Baobao Zhang is a senior in Calhoun College and a former multimedia editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This piece is part of the News’ Election Day Forum. Click here to read more.