“Voting is at the heart of democracy.” I’ve heard this mantra repeated so many times that, at some point, I became numb to its meaning. Why did voting matter anyway? One vote — my vote — was unlikely to change the result of an election. For a long time, I believed in this line of reasoning; I thought voting was overrated — a waste of time and effort. Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t been so naive. It took the fall of a city for me to learn the significance of voting. That city was the one I was born in, the one I spent my childhood in and the one I loved: Hong Kong.
To understand how Hong Kong fits into the larger conversation around voting, we will first have to go back in time. In 2019, the city came under the spotlight when its residents protested against China’s oppressive legislation: an extradition bill that threatened the city’s sovereignty and democracy. The extradition bill would let Hong Kong extradite people wanted in countries with which they have no formal extradition agreement. The concern with this is that residents believe the law would allow “virtually anyone” to be picked up, detained and sent to China to be prosecuted. Many people my age, peers I grew up with in Hong Kong, protested on the streets because they wanted to be heard; they demanded change. For a while, everything looked hopeful. After all, the protesters were loud enough that the world paid attention.
But, that hope was short-lived. It was quickly swallowed by China’s national security law, which took away residents’ freedom of speech by the end of 2020. Since then, the city has gone silent. Now, when I look at the news, Hong Kong is nowhere to be found. It’s as if the protests never even happened. In a blink of an eye, I watched a democratic effort disappear.
The silence that ensued after Hong Kong’s democracy fell was the worst part. I never knew silence could hurt so much. You see, I normally relish in quietness. As a shy and introverted person, silence gives me space to breathe, to take a break and to recharge before I socialize again. But the silence in Hong Kong is cruel. It’s the kind that results from being forced to hold your breath. It’s the kind that if you defy, you face the possibility of arrest and prison.
What power did I have that would allow my voice to be heard? It was my power to vote, and I wasn’t the only one who recognized the power of voting. Politicians had always known. In fact, this same pattern emerges as I looked through the history of voting in the United States.
Voices through voting, especially those of marginalized communities, have been consistently suppressed or silenced. For example, African Americans didn’t get the right to vote until after the Civil War. Women didn’t get to vote until 1920, and many Indigenous peoples didn’t get to vote until the 1960s. Even now, disenfranchisement policies, such as those put on citizens with a felony conviction, often disproportionately affect BIPOC voices. In fact, nationally, 6.2% of African Americans are disenfranchised due to having a felony conviction.
Though not to the same extent, I realized that voices halfway around the world weren’t the only ones being silenced. It’s happening in the U.S., too. Watching Hong Kong’s democracy collapse, I now know how integral voting is to democracy. This is why I will vote in the upcoming midterm elections in my state, Michigan.
It’s especially important to vote in this election because Michigan voters will have the power to codify reproductive rights. Ann Arbor voters will also have the power to approve a tax that could help fight climate change. Beyond ballot proposals, U.S. representatives in Congress, the governor of Michigan, the Secretary of State and other key positions are up for election, making voting as vital as ever.
In Michigan, you can register to vote online or in person on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. If you are, like me, a student at the University of Michigan, you can go to UMMA or the Duderstadt Gallery for voter registration. If you prefer to vote by mail, know that all registered Michigan voters are eligible to request an absentee ballot.
Although there are coalitions to expand voting rights to green card holders and others authorized to work in the U.S., as a general rule, only naturalized citizens can vote in the U.S. That said, there are other ways to help the voting process. One way is to become a poll worker. As the name suggests, poll workers work at polls to prevent voter suppression and ensure election procedures are followed. Another way to help is social media monitoring, which you can participate in remotely. The main goal is to report questionable election content on social media and spread credible information.
If I could go back in time, I would ensure I voted at every opportunity. Voting, after all, is at the heart of democracy. It is essential to make your voice heard. In Hong Kong, protests were the avenue for the people, but here we all can use our voice by voting. Without exercising this right, democracy could collapse in a blink of an eye. By voting, you send a message: your voice will not be silenced and you stand with all those who are oppressed.
Tian Yeung is a Master’s of Social Work student in the School of Social Work.