A lesson about voting from my father: an immigrant and American

Sunday, October 25, 2020 - 11:31am

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

My father jumped out of his seat the moment I entered the living room. With a glowing smile, he proudly announced that he had finished registering to vote for the upcoming presidential election. Each day that followed, whenever I trekked to the mailbox and dropped our mail on the table, he would shuffle through the array of letters, hoping to find his absentee ballot. 

My father became a United States citizen approximately 25 years ago. He first landed in Canada after moving from Vietnam, and then relocated to Michigan after meeting my mom at a friend’s wedding. Despite this, he had never fully engaged in U.S. politics, and instead focused more on his profession and building a life for his family. He usually tuned in to NBC Nightly News after dinner to stay up-to-date with current events, but his engagement ended with the closing segment. I always secretly hoped he’d grow more interested in current events, but I understood he was extremely stressed from the pressures of work. 

After moving back home from college in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed a shift in the political atmosphere in my home. Over the two and a half years I had been away, my father had developed his own voice. I watched as he tried to converse with David Muir through the monitor, exclaiming “what do you mean?” or “how could this happen?” Instead of passively listening like he did in the past, he was fervently engaged. I was filled with pride as I watched my father sit on the edge of his seat, waiting to hear what the news anchor would say next. 

While moving back home and seeing this change was exciting, that time period was also marked by anxiety. The pandemic is no joke for my family. My father has a preexisting condition, and when I moved back home, we couldn’t fathom engaging in behavior that would put him at risk. We wore masks like it was our armor from the deadly virus and scrubbed doorhandles clean with Clorox wipes. After every trip to the grocery store, my mother and I would come home with mountains of food to limit the number of times we went out. My father was absolutely ecstatic when Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson assured Michigan residents could vote by mail. As Benson said, he thankfully didn’t have to worry about choosing between his health and his right to vote.

Our ballots coincidentally arrived on the same day. My father’s face lit up with excitement as he took his ballot to his home office with a pen in hand. He was determined to exercise his right as a newly informed, engaged U.S. citizen. Fifteen minutes later, he emerged victorious with a completed ballot, sealing it up and placing it back in the mailbox to be shipped off the next day.

It was official. My father — an immigrant with a preexisting condition — voted for the first time ever. 

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2016 hit a record breaking 200 million total registered voters, yet only 61.4% voted. According to the Pew Research Center, 15% of registered nonvoters identified a “lack of interest or a feeling that their vote wouldn’t make a difference” as the reason for not voting. Surely one vote can’t make a difference — at least that’s what my father used to think.

And yet, a single vote can. 

NPR details close calls in election history, including an incident in 2017 in Virginia. In an election for a seat in the House of Delegates, a tie was broken by placing the candidate’s names in a canister and picking one out. A more well-known example is the 2000 elections when Al Gore lost the electoral college to George W. Bush due to a narrow 0.009 margin in Florida.

It might not seem like your vote matters, but that’s what hundreds of other people are thinking, too. That’s what my father thought at first. Imagine the power if all these voices spoke together instead of staying silent. Our democracy only works if everyone plays their part. We can’t assume someone else will fight our battles, and if there is a cause that you believe in, you need to vote to help uplift the voices of those who can’t. We can only create progress if we continue to fight for what we believe in. 

In terms of elections, every vote is key when deciding each state’s electoral college votes. 

Out of 50 states, 48 utilize the winner-takes-all system. The system itself is highly controversial, with people arguing it is anti-democratic and it waters down the value of a single vote. However, these controversies demonstrate that’s all the more reason why your vote matters. We need to continue fighting and not use these controversies as an excuse. Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college in 2016 despite winning the popular vote, costing her the presidency as a direct result of this phenomena. Regardless of which side you fall on the political spectrum, the close nature of Clinton-Trump and Gore-Bush elections demonstrate the power of the electoral college.

Even more important are battleground states, also known as swing states. Battleground states teeter between red and blue party affiliations during election seasons, and are usually watched closely by news organizations trying to map election results. Politico has identified Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as swing states for the upcoming election. These states were also identified as swing states in the 2016 election. Since we live in Michigan, my father and I both know that our vote will be critical in determining what color Michigan will appear on the map, and in turn, decide who will receive Michigan’s electoral college votes.

This year, the U.S. has already beaten 2016’s record of early voting by 140%. While I agree the numbers are shocking, I’m also not surprised. Every time I open up social media, my feed is flooded with voting initiatives. My friends post on Instagram and Snapchat flaunting their voting stickers. It seems to me like this election cycle is generating a powerful push to increase voter turnout, a push greater than ever before. 

There’s no denying that 2020 has been jam-packed with political discourse. The world was pushed into a new reality as COVID-19 wreaked havoc, disrupting our daily lives. Following the death of George Floyd, national news organizations broadcasted protestors flooding streets across the country as brave voices stood strong for the Black Lives Matter movement. Our country lost Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a women’s rights pioneer and icon, creating a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. The legitimacy of absentee voting itself has been battled by politicians. 

There is so much at stake, now more than ever. That’s why my father is voting — he knows his vote can make a difference. But it’s important to note that he can make a difference in any election, not just this one. 

This incredible push for exercising our voting rights shouldn’t end at the 2020 election. Every new administration, and all of the changes in positions beside the presidency that each cycle brings, creates lasting effects on our lives. We live in a continuously changing world, and different economic and social issues will constantly be in flux. There will always be something for us to voice our opinions on, and voting for a candidate you believe in can be a tangible method to initiate change.  

We need to recognize that voting is an incredible privilege that was heavily fought for in the U.S. and around the world. We are fortunate to have a say in our government and we must keep exercising our rights rather than rendering them obsolete. 

With this upcoming election, I’ve watched my father transform before my eyes. I’ve never seen him this passionate about politics, or this excited to vote. He left his home country in search for a better life — a life with more freedom and opportunities. Now, 25 years later, he gets to play a direct part in our democracy.


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