(WOMENSENEWS)— When President Barack Obama said, “Don’t boo, vote” from the stage on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia recently, for the first time, I could say, “Yes, I will.”
With fewer than three months until Election Day, and the polls shifting daily on predictions for the projected winner of the presidency, I am sure of one thing. I will be standing in line at the Joseph Pulitzer Intermediate School 145 in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, to cast my vote in America (or anywhere) for the first time in my life. I was too young to vote in Nepal, my country of birth, and until this year, I could not vote in the U.S., my country of choice.
After spending two decades living, working and paying taxes in the U.S., I finally have the right to vote as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen. I am excited about the general election but not thrilled about the choice between the top two candidates: Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
I know that Jill Stein, a Green Party candidate; Gary Johnson, a Libertarian; and Darrell Castle, a Constitution Party candidate, are also going be on the ballot in 20 or more states, along with many other candidates from smaller parties. I have considered voting “third party” but I want my first vote be more than a symbolic act of dissent.
When Obama first ran for the presidency eight years ago, I very much wanted to see a son of an immigrant, person of color and former community organizer rise to the highest office in the country and the most powerful position in the world.
As an immigrant, person of color and organizer myself, I pinned my hopes and dreams on him. But I could not vote. Being on a temporary work visa, I could not even donate to his campaign.
Four years later, for his re-election in 2012, I was ambivalent. Still, as a permanent resident that year, I could not vote.
Yes, it is powerful to see a black family in the White House; the house built by slaves, as Michelle Obama said recently. In his time in office, there was also the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Affordable Care Act, which increased access to health care, and a lesser-known but hugely important overhaul of the student loan system. There were other progressive gains, in energy policy and other domestic areas. But there were drones killing innocent civilians and deportations ripping families apart.
This year is different. Dissatisfied with the two major party candidates and without what I see as a viable third party candidate, some of my friends are considering sitting out this election. This is not the first time for that choice; in 1956, W.E. B. DuBois reached the same conclusion.
But for me, voting is not just a right but also a responsibility. More than 20 million immigrants, including permanent residents, undocumented immigrants and those here with temporary visas, do not have a voice in the electoral politics. Even among U.S. citizens, 5.8 million cannot vote due to a felony conviction.
The Supreme Court undermined the Voting Rights Act in 2013, making it easier for what many see as racially motivated voter suppression. Sheriffs are going to voters’ homes to purge voter rolls in Georgia. While some states have made it easier to vote and restrictive voting laws have been blocked or weakened in other states, more and more states are enacting voting restrictions.
I take my right to vote seriously. People went to jail and many more risked their lives and limbs for me to enjoy this right. I need to vote because the election is not just about the presidential candidates.
Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder and worker organizer, recently said her decision about who to vote for would be based on choosing “the battlefield that is most advantageous for us to move the vision that we want.”
One way to create the battlefield where we can move our vision is to pay attention to “down ballot” races, or the local elected positions. We also need Congress to hold the president accountable and actively pass laws. And we need state and local government to advance what we cannot do at the federal level.
I am not going into the poll with a naïve belief that voting will solve everything. But I believe that participating in the political system, starting with voting, is an important part of the equation for creating a world we want to live in.
After years of supporting others to exercise their rights – registering voters, getting them to the polls, volunteering as a poll monitor – I finally get to exercise my franchise.