“That looked easy,” I thought, as I left a local election on a Sunday afternoon. Excited people wandered around, greeting their friends and neighbors, as they cast their votes at one of several polling stations at a local election in a small rural town in Chile. How different from my experience voting in my country’s presidential election just a week ago.
I am a United States citizen volunteering in Chile, and I was invited to tag along with a friend while she voted in a local election. Before leaving the US in April, a woman from my state Department of Elections walked me through the absentee voter application process over the phone and assured me that I would receive my ballot via email in September. Then, she explained, I would simply need to print it, fill it out, and mail it back to the US.
September came and went and my ballot never arrived. After several weeks of frustrating email auto-responses, unsuccessful phone calls made from within the US on my behalf, and hours of my own research, I was able to vote using the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot – although, not without a lot of support from friends in my Chilean community and a hefty price tag at the post office.
Never had I experienced so many barriers blocking my way to participating in an election. While the process was by no means enjoyable, I think there is value, particularly for helping professionals, in having experiences like this one. Because, if voting in this election was so difficult for me – a White middle class female – how much more difficult is it for those who do not share my privilege?
In talking with people in my Chilean community, many have been surprised to learn that US elections are held on a weekday. According to Why Tuesday?, an organization working towards solutions to low voter-turnout, several countries around the world have higher voter participation than the US does, and many of these countries hold elections on Saturdays or Sundays. The organization also points out that US Census data consistently show that being busy or stuck at work is the most common reason people give for not exercising their voting rights. However, this challenge is not experienced equally across the population. According to a Caltech/MIT study discussed in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Black and Hispanic citizens are more likely than White citizens to face challenges related to voter identification, receiving their absentee ballots, polling place locations, transportation, and long lines on election day. Meanwhile, White citizens who do not vote, more often explain that it is because they dislike the candidates. The Atlantic points out that, it appears as though “white citizens who abstain from voting do so primarily by choice, while the majority of minority nonvoters face problems along the way.”
Voting in this election was difficult for me, but because of my privilege, the money I spent to mail my ballot was an inconvenience, but it won’t ruin me. When my first attempt to vote didn’t work, I was armed with the skills, materials, and knowledge to research other options. And, perhaps most importantly, my experience as a White person born into the middle class has taught me to take for granted that I, and my opinions, matter in our society. Unfortunately, that has not been the experience of many of the people for whom voting is most difficult. Those less privileged than I am – the single mom working multiple minimum-wage hourly jobs who can’t step away to wait in a long line at the polls, the man experiencing homelessness who struggles to obtain the necessary identification documents – encounter clear tangible barriers blocking their way to the polls. But, they may also lack the skills that I had to navigate the system, and more importantly, their lived experiences have often shown them that their opinions are not valued in our society.
A recent NPR interview revealed that several Black citizens feel frustrated and disillusioned with the current presidential race, especially with the racism that has been so prevalent during this particular election season. Indeed, there has been blatantly hateful and racist discourse throughout this election cycle, to the point where there has even been talk of race-based violence at the polls, and large numbers of teachers report increased feelings of fear among their students, particularly those who are minorities. The feelings of fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration that I imagine result from seeing such things on the news, combined with the more tangible barriers of long lines, inconvenient polling locations, and confusing voter ID laws, seem, to me, like more than enough to cause minority and working-class voters to simply give up. In a country where only a few months ago a North Carolina law that “deliberately ‘target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision’ in an effort to depress black turnout at the polls,” was deemed unconstitutional, and where less than a week from election day, there is a hearing scheduled regarding the possibility that thousands of Black citizens in North Carolina have been illegally removed from the list of registered voters, it doesn’t seem like too big a stretch to suppose that tangible barriers aren’t the only thing preventing people from voting. In fact, early voter turnout in North Carolina already reveals decreased participation by Black citizens. According to insightus: “while flooding of biblical proportions certainly hasn’t helped voter turnout, this year voter suppression appears to substantially outstrip Hurricane Matthew as a force depressing North Carolina’s African American vote. Of course, it still must be explained why black voting is also slightly down in the state’s unimpaired counties, and here a variety of factors are no doubt at play, ranging from mild voter disengagement to forms of voter suppression more subtle than locked polling place doors.”
As a person born with the privilege that comes with being White and middle class, I cannot imagine what it must feel like to show up at the polls on Election Day, when it feels like you and others like you are not wanted there. I am in awe of those for whom it is a challenge in more ways than one, but who find a way to show up anyway. For those of us who do enjoy more privilege – particularly those of us in the helping professions – we need to increase our efforts to ensure that our less privileged clients – as well as our friends, neighbors, and coworkers – at the very least, feel like their opinions, views, and life experiences are worthy of being heard.
When I walked away from the election in Chile, I was struck by two things: One was how quick and easy it was, compared, not only with my experience voting absentee from another country, but also with my past experiences voting in person at home. The other was the community feel of the entire event. When I vote at home, I wait in a long line where people seem impatient and annoyed, staring at their watches, wondering if they’ll be able to get to work on time. But the election here felt like a community party. I saw several people I knew, smiling and greeting each other. Kids ran around outside the building eating ice cream while their parents cast their votes. People seemed excited to participate in the decision-making process – and this was “just” a local election. And isn’t that how it should be? I won’t argue that Chile has a perfect system; I doubt any country does. But, shouldn’t our goal be to set up a system in which everyone truly has the opportunity to have his or her voice heard, and to be excited to participate in the democratic process?