I remember when I first found out that my parents were not registered to vote. It was the mid-’80s, and at the time, my job was with a program in D.C. whose mission was to inspire and educate young people to participate as informed citizens in our democracy. Thus, I was appalled that in my very own family were people who were not exercising this cherished right—the right to vote—that people had died to obtain and protect.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Korea in the 1960s. With childhoods spent experiencing Japanese occupation and World War II, and then as teenagers, thrust into civil war, they had not seen much stability in government, nor been exposed to the workings of a functioning democracy. They had come to the United States seeking a better future. Didn’t they feel inspired to be part of a citizenry that held the power to elect its own representatives to a democratic government?
By contrast, I, as a U.S.-born citizen and product of public schools, had been indoctrinated to the virtues of patriotism, American-style, my whole life. I remember learning the words to “This Land Is My Land” in nursery school. I remember traveling to D.C. with other students and the thrill of seeing our nation’s capital for the first time. I remember being selected to participate in a program called Girls’ State, a summer program where high school juniors elect each other to serve in a mock legislature, pass bills, and undertake other mock government functions.
It’s true, that may not have been every high school kid’s idea of a good time (yes, I was a civics nerd). But I learned about citizen power, and how the democratic system—in an ideal world—was supposed to work. And what I saw of my parents’ experience was that they had access to the American Dream and experienced economic success after coming here. So, in my view, they had the obligation as naturalized citizens to contribute to their adopted country, not just by paying taxes, but by exercising their hard-won right to vote.
Indeed, some countries, such as Australia, have compulsory voting; eligible citizens are required to register and to vote. In the United States, that is not the case. Rather, despite its lofty ideals, the United States has a shameful past of enacting laws that have the effect of restricting who can vote. Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many states imposed poll taxes, or required literacy tests, or created other barriers to keep specific groups of people from voting. It was only after years of campaigning that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, allowing women the right to vote.
Back in my early days as a young civics educator, I didn’t know much about politics—certainly not enough to be cynical. Now, as a lawyer, I see all too well the ways in which our democratic ideals fall short. Yet I still believe strongly in the rule of law—the idea that we are governed by laws, not by people. And I also understand that those laws are created by people, and it is our system of representative democracy that creates the mechanism for the expression of the will of the people in the law.
At the same time, I have a greater understanding of the nuanced feelings that immigrants to the United States may have about politics. Many came from countries colonized by others, ruled by authoritarian or military regimes, or with corrupt governments that are democratic in name only. Like my parents, these immigrants may want nothing to do with politics, as they have seen only its failure to provide what people need. And for those in the United States, this past presidential election cycle has certainly given reason for disillusionment in politics, even for the most idealistic of us.
But it is also in times like these when the right to vote becomes even more of an imperative. Elected officials are passing laws restricting immigrants from entering the United States and accessing that cherished American Dream. They are backing inhumane treatment of people in immigration detention centers. They are threatening global security by approaching international diplomacy with jingoism and belligerence. And legislatures are still passing laws restricting access to the voting booth.
The decisionmakers in those situations are, for the most part, representatives of the people, directly elected by the people. This means that the power to change those decisions rests in the people who vote.
For those who wonder how one vote could matter, note that U.S. Senator Al Franken won his seat by a mere 312 votes. Closer to home, Governor Chris Gregoire beat her opponent in 2008 by 133 votes, and Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold won her seat by only 39 votes. So yes, each vote is counted, and sometimes recounted—and each vote counts!
So as you decide this year, and next year, and the year after that, whether you should bother to register to vote and mailing in your ballot, consider the countries from which you or your relatives might have come. Consider the opportunities that exist under the U.S. democratic system. And consider these words by famed civil rights activist and U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who participated in marches in Selma for the Voting Right Act: If not us, then who? If not now, then when?