Another election rolls around — big whoop. Just another election year, we all know the drill by now. Voting efforts on Sproul Plaza are seen far and wide, attracting passersby with cookies, pizza and every other edible voting incentive you can think of.
Elections shouldn’t faze me: it’s just a normal part of living in America. I get that, I really do — I’ve lived in Spain, in England, in France … I should know the drill, seeing as I’ve been over voting age for almost four years now.
Elections certainly shouldn’t faze me as a political science major. Democratic processes, institutions and current political affairs are fully entrenched in my day-to-day academia. Graduating this December, I have done my fair share of election night news-watching.
And yet, another election rolls around. So what’s the big whoop?
I can’t vote.
I’m almost 22 years old, I’m very news-literate and I’m studying politics, yet I don’t have the right to vote. With all these “qualifications” to be an exemplary voter, I am still a less-than-proud owner of only one passport: Russian.
I was born and partly raised in Russia, something I have spent a large part of my life trying to sweep under the rug. Russian politics, as many readers may know, isn’t exactly the most welcoming towards, well, most. To be clear, I do have the right to vote, in theory. Russia does a fantastic job at pretending to uphold constitutional values — my vote just doesn’t count for anything.
For years now, since the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency 22 years ago, political parties have essentially been co-opted by Putin’s men (and, yes, they are mostly men). There has been ample evidence of election tampering, and according to recent New York Times reporting, almost all remnants of the free media have essentially been scraped off the face of Russia over the past few months.
In 2020, Russia had a major “upgrade” — in the loosest sense of the word — to its constitution. This new document, displayed loud and clear on the government’s website and in schools across the country, outlines what felt like the last blow to an already rapidly deteriorating political environment. The knife in the gut, if you will, to any chance of liberal democratic institutions, separation of powers or free and fair elections.
One of the most publicized reforms pertained to Putin’s ability to continue to run for two more terms after his current one, allowing him to remain at the helm of a newfound “Tsardom” until 2036. In other words, by the time I am 35, Putin will have been President of my country for all 35 of those years, with the exception of a brief stint as Prime Minister between 2008 and 2012.
So, my choice of presidential candidates is now down to (checks notes), one. It’s not looking much better for parliamentary candidates, either. Ballot boxes in the most recent legislative election were bursting at the seams with stuffed ballots and opposition candidates were nowhere to be found, with opposition leader Alexei Navalny watching the election from afar — from jail.
“Exclusion” isn’t exactly the word for how I feel during the election cycle. I can participate in conversations, I can give my thoughts and perspectives, I can get involved in local activism and conversation surrounding political issues. The word I’m looking for is more like “envy.”
It’s not that I’m envious to be a part of the American political world because, Lord knows, it has its issues. It’s that tangible debate that I’ve realized that I crave. Policy debates, rallying potential voters, mapping voting trends and behavior: None of it may be perfect in the United States, and it may even be getting worse — but it exists.
My point is that, maybe the grass is always greener, but it is awfully hard to water a lawn that isn’t even there.
I’m not saying my peers should accept the vast amounts of political issues facing them simply because they are able to express their views freely and without consequence. But it is certainly something to be mindful of as elections roll around: Voting is a right, but it is also a privilege.
For international students in general, I’m sure, American elections are a unique experience. Many of us follow them just as closely as U.S. citizens themselves — after all, the outcome has immense consequences on the world. But for me, the election cycle serves as a reminder of the identity I have spent my whole life running from, and the rights I do not have but one day hope to earn.