Your Voice 2016

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franchised

I thought voting didn’t matter. Then I became a U.S. citizen.

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Three months ago, on August 5, a U.S. immigration official at the Jacob Javits Federal Building in downtown Manhattan asked me for my green card, just as dozens of his colleagues had done over the years. I handed it over, as usual – and then he didn’t give it back. Instead he added it to a large and growing pile, and told me to take the elevator down a couple of floors, to the room where I was about to become a U.S. citizen.

This morning, shortly after 6 AM, I voted.

I’ve always been pretty cynical about citizenship and elections, which is one reason why it took me 20 years to become an American. New York, where I live, is a solid-blue state; my vote wouldn’t matter here anyway. And as an immigrant who was already disenfranchised in my native Britain, I have spent essentially my entire adult life not being able to vote. I was perfectly happy being a rootless cosmopolitan. Voting was never something I particularly felt the need to do.

Something funny happened after I received my naturalization certificate, however: voting started to matter to me, a lot. Not in the utilitarian sense of determining the outcome of an election, but rather in the civic duty sense of 130 million individuals in the most important country in the world working together to collectively determine its leadership and its future. Today, I couldn’t be prouder to be one of those 130 million.

The election campaign was unspeakably gruesome, of course, and I’m sure the entire nation is incredibly happy that it’s finally over. What’s more, unlike Britain, it looks very much as though America will manage to make the right decision.

I’ve never been much of a “faith in democracy” kind of guy, and the Brexit vote effectively killed off whatever belief I had in the wisdom of crowds. And the U.S. version of democracy is certainly deeply flawed, both in design (Electoral College, wtf?) and in execution (a steady stream of Clintons and Bushes occupying the White House from 1989 to 2021 and possibly beyond, with only Barack Obama breaking the pattern).

But I learned something important as I slapped my “I voted” sticker onto my jacket this morning (before transferring it to my laptop). Democracy, it turns out, is a little bit like parenthood: it’s hard to appreciate how satisfying it can be until you actually do it.

Voting isn’t always easy. The lines can be long, the polling stations inconveniently located, the competing demands on your time more urgent. And sure, statistically, your vote isn’t going to make any difference. But voting is an incredibly valuable privilege all the same. If you have any doubt, just ask an immigrant.