Monday, November 29, 2010

Why we should vote

This was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 28 November 2010.

IMG_0185Democracy is a powerful notion.

It allows; an octogenarian black woman, a single-mother working on double shifts, a 40 year-old unemployed college drop-out, a life-saving surgeon, a homeless war veteran with one arm, a 19 year-old exchange student in Europe, a young beautiful stripper, Joe the gay plumber and Mary the unhappy housewife; to choose who they want to run their country.

It is perhaps the only rare time when every single person, who has not relinquished his or her civil and political rights, will ever be treated equally. Think about it: is there any other time when everyone’s voices are valued and measured in the same manner regardless of their socio-economic background? And because of this power and the sanctity of it, the State will try its best to provide each and everyone the means to exercise this inalienable right to vote.

Photo above: Robin Carnahan, a Democrat candidate for the Missouri State House of Representatives lost in the recent Mid-Term election.

Democracy can be a dangerous notion.

In order to wipe out competition; political opponents, women candidates and pro-democratic mullahs are intimidated or killed. Women who decide to shed their proverbial and literal burqas in order to have their photographs laminated on their voter registration cards are being threatened to death or killed.

For the lucky ones who manage to emerge unscathed, they will walk miles and miles to the polling stations in the harsh winter climate wearing only inferior Croc-style shoes on their freezing feet and determination on their faces already showing signs of pre-mature aging.

I was fortunate enough to witness how democracy was carried out in the United States of America (USA) and Afghanistan. Although their spirits are as different as night and day, the essence of the notion remains the same. Hence, for the precise reason that democracy is such a powerful notion that many Afghans are being persecuted for embracing it. To me, this is the first reason why we should vote.

I love elections. There is nothing more exciting and inspiring than watching regular citizens from any given layer of society share one common belief that each of them has the opportunity to be a part of that intricate fabric that will one day adorn their government.

When I am at a polling station, I am amazed and comforted by the thought that no matter how insignificant one is in the scheme of things, his or her vote will be counted. No matter what the election outcome is, that person’s existence that day has mattered greatly. Sadly, it is too rare to witness such a sense of importance and purpose in regular people throughout our daily lives, but when such opportunity presents itself, it is truly an honour.

When my alarm clock went off at 4:30am on 2 November 2010, I jumped off my bed and was ready in advance of my 5:30am pick-up. John Chasnoff, the Programme Manager for the American Civil Liberties Union for Eastern-Missouri (ACLU, E-M) (insert hyperlink: http://www.aclu-em.org/), pulled up at the entrance of my hotel on South-Jefferson Avenue, St. Louis City, a few minutes after 5:30am.

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Photo above: Volunteers at the legal command centre of St. Louis. It was still dark outside. Polling stations open at 6am in the United States on Election Day.

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Photo above: Finally things got a bit more exciting as the day progressed. Volunteers gathered together to discuss a complaint.

It was still dark and the roads were completely deserted when we arrived at a Reformed Judaism temple serving as the legal command centre for St. Louis’s Voter Protection Programme (insert hyperlink: http://www.advancementproject.org/our-work/voter-protection) that day. The programme was run by Advancement Project with the help of a coalition of non-governmental organisations such as ACLU, National Disability Rights Network, etc.

We were greeted by Denise Lieberman, a civil rights lawyer, who had just arrived at the center with her arms full. I quickly established that she was the team leader as she wasted no time in turning on the lights and coffee machine, setting up the centre, getting someone to pick up assortments of bagels and cream cheeses and organising the volunteers who were beginning to trickle in to the centre.

Most volunteers were lawyers on standby to address complaints of electoral irregularities. The day started off slowly and I was beginning to feel convinced that voters in America do not need protection after all and the existence of such programme was merely a frivolity and not necessity.

Throughout my trip in the USA, I asked some Americans whether electoral fraud is a concern in the country. Most of them smiled politely as if it was the most ridiculous question they had ever heard. According to many, it would be extremely difficult but not impossible, to find someone trying to vote twice since the real challenge is actually to get more Americans to vote. Apparently, the USA is notoriously known for low voter turnout, except for the last Presidential election when throngs of young voters turned up to vote.

What intrigued me the most was the absence of photo ID as a requirement to vote. When I pressed on about how such a system could potentially become a target for abuse and fraud, most of them just shrugged and said, “You just need to trust.” It was my turn to smile politely.

While refilling my third cup of coffee that morning, I stroke up a conversation with another volunteer. According to him, many Americans do not have any form of photo identification since not all Americans possess a passport or driver’s license; the two most common documents with photos attached. As such, it makes it virtually impossible for the electoral law to include photo ID as a requirement to vote. He believes that one of the main reasons why some Americans make this into such a big issue is to prevent certain voters from voting for the opposition.

Sure enough, one of the complaints which subsequently came in that morning was of a polling officer who insisted that a voter must present a photo ID in order to vote. Later on, John and I were sent to a polling station to investigate a complaint against a Republican challenger who was allegedly telling polling officers that the voting machines were faulty and in order for a republican vote to be registered in the system, voters must press the button for the Republican candidate repetitively. Another complaint received was from a blind voter who was concerned that the polling officer might not have read out the whole list of candidates and propositions on the ballot paper.

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Once we determined that the day was not going to get more exciting, John was ready to cast his vote at the polling station where he registered. As long as I am not John’s employer or labour union representative, I was allowed to accompany and assist him at the voting booth, in which I did. Since USA is pretty much a country that seems to rely heavily on trust, nobody bothered to question whether John genuinely needed my assistance in the first place. I also noticed that there was no police presence in most of the polling stations we went. The only time when we actually saw them was when they came to collect the ballot boxes.

 

Photo above: John Chasnoff distributing electoral materials at one of the polling stations. We had to make sure that we were at least 25 feet away from the entrance of the polling station. A voter arrived at the polling station with his granddaughter.

When I talked to John about my experience in Afghanistan as a Civic Education Officer and Political Rights Verification Officer, I was reminded of how different the atmosphere was on election day in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, we would have witnessed or received countless of reports on the number of fraud, intimidation and violence committed all over the country.

I think there are many reasons why some people do not vote. It could be because they have lost faith in the whole democratic process. It could also be because they do not know who to vote for or care enough for what the candidates stand for. It could be because they are not physically or mentally fit to vote. But there are also many who do not vote simply because they think their votes do not matter and election period is just another day for politicians to hurl malicious accusations at each other in public. For these people, here’s news for you.

Democracy is not free but often comes with a huge price. It is not handed down to us on a silver platter but one that is often filled with blood and difficult compromises. For many of us who live in relatively peaceful and politically stable countries, we have become myopic of how our fore parents had fought hard for it many years ago. It would appear that the more democratic a country is, the less interested her people are in her political affairs. For isn’t this the ugly side of human nature that it is when something is taken away from you that you will only come to value it the most?

So vote while you still have the right to do so.

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