I had a hundred other things to do that day instead of voting. Literally. Even though it was the 2018 midterm elections, it was also the thick of midterm season, and I had a paper due that night and an exam the next morning.
Months ago, I’d planned to make sure I wouldn’t be in this situation by requesting an absentee ballot from my hometown, Chicago, at the start of September. Only, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners had lost my ballot and were unable to post me a new one while the old one was still in circulation because of the possibility of voter fraud.
I told my friends about this bureaucratic incompetence, implying I had tried my hardest to vote and it just wasn’t in the cards for me this year, but they didn’t let me off so easy. Apparently, since I was also a resident of California, I could cast a same-day provisional ballot if I drove down to an Alameda courthouse.
My initial reaction was, “What an absolute waste of time.” I’d barely had time to eat lunch that day — forget driving down to Oakland to wait in line and vote in a county that had gone Democratic for the last 53 years.
The prospect of voting slowly moved to the back of my mind. I immersed myself in classical political economy theory in the back tables of Doe Library, furiously skimming over notes as I crammed for my midterm.
The pen I’d been using to underline faltered as I read over a comment my professor made in a lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” that was not-so-subtly directed at us, the age group with the lowest voter turnout.
“If you don’t participate in our country, our society, you don’t have the right to criticize it because you didn’t play your part. Participating means voting,” my professor had said.
At the time de Tocqueville was writing, I, a woman of color, wouldn’t have even been able to participate in American democracy. The system was originally just intended for property-owning white men; the United States put universal suffrage into practice a mere 55 years ago, which is how old my father is.
Something about that sentence unexpectedly struck me. It washed over me in small waves, slowly morphing into a whirling tsunami. Before I knew it, I was packing up my bag, scurrying out of Doe Library and driving up to Oakland to vote.
And it was amazing. Back when my entire life happened within a 12,342 acre campus, I would often forget about the outside world that existed beyond Sather Gate. It used to frighten me, going from walking around and bumping into friends and professors who recognized me to a seemingly infinitesimal role among faceless strangers.
But that day, I saw the beauty in being part of a collective. I thought waiting in polling lines would be like when I got my driver’s license, arduous and unnecessarily tedious, but I got to register and vote in just under one hour.
Friends I made in line passionately pitched their divergent reasons on voting for different propositions. A mother asked me to hold her baby for a few minutes since she couldn’t take her into the booth. An elderly man shared some snacks he’d packed with our line, so we could have “some brain food before filling out our ballots.”
Packed into the depths of a government basement, bumping and brushing against all ages and demographics, feeling the undercurrent of cautious excitement pulsing through the line, voting transformed from a burdensome task into an obligation I found myself excited to fill.
Unfortunately, this is a rare scene in America. Under the false guise of widespread voter fraud — studies have found no evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 election — new voting restrictions, such as strict voter ID laws and purges of voter rolls, have been put in place to seemingly deliberately stifle Black and Latino voters.
Black voters, on average, wait twice as long in lines than their white counterparts, something that seems especially burdensome when you consider that Election Day is a normal work and school day.
These policies are widely believed to have suppressed enough voters of color in battleground states to have tilted the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor.
Most worrisome, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation meant to prohibit racial discrimination in voting, seems to be under attack from a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.
The court struck down a key provision in 2013, which allowed federal government oversight of Southern states changing their voting laws to protect against a return to disenfranchisement. And the newly appointed Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who once supported virtue-based restrictions on voting, poses a pressing threat to the country’s fairly recent guarantee of universal suffrage.
So, this coming Tuesday, vote. Vote because our ability and opportunity to do so, like much of American history, is being challenged once again. Don’t let our rights vanish.
Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].