Finally, the US is waking up to the fact that voting rights should not be taken for granted
Amy Wu says there appears to be an upswing in interest in America’s presidential election. And that’s a good thing, as the power to choose should not be easily given up
Here in the US, politics is all-consuming. That’s not exactly surprising since the US presidential election is only four months away.
The bad news, according to many of my fellow Americans, is that the election appears to be one of the strangest in recent memory, thanks in part to the colourful cast of candidates. “The pickings are slim, I don’t think any of them are good,” a good friend said. “And if Trump wins, I’m moving to another country.”
But the good news is that this election has lit a fire in the belly of many citizens, which is translating into action at the voting booth. All signs are that there has been an uptick in the number of registered voters, which has been low in recent history. For a long time, about half of Americans eligible to vote have either failed to register or turn in their ballots.
According to the US census bureau, only 57.5 per cent of the 218 million Americans eligible to vote actually cast their ballot in the 2012 presidential election. Why? In previous years, I’ve thrown away my vote for a number of reasons, most pretty lame. Filling out change of addresses and dealing with more paperwork can be a pain.
I’m far from alone. According to the US census, the key reason why Americans don’t vote is because they are too busy; 28 per cent stated that as the reason while 16 per cent said they weren’t interested. The election department in the county where I live held numerous voter information forums on “what to expect” on election day, which were loosely attended. Holding the forums in the early evenings to accommodate the mass working population didn’t make a difference either.
In retrospect, I regret not having registered to vote in the years I lived in Hong Kong. Overseas votes can swing the result in tight races. That’s what happened in 2000, when 2,490 overseas ballots counted after Election Day was the difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
But, on a deeper level, a vote is symbolic of a democracy. And the freedom to choose our leaders is something that Americans, on the whole, take for granted. Perhaps more Americans would get to the polls if they had the taste of living under a dictatorship and “choice” was stripped away.
Universal suffrage is hard fought in many places around the world. In Hong Kong, the fight for a free vote is ongoing, and has been the root of mass protests. Unfortunately, the efforts have not been rewarded. After Hong Kong’s legislature rejected a Beijing-approved proposal for electoral reform, there remains no universal suffrage to chose the city’s leader; the Election Committee will continue to decide. While some Hongkongers have said that the Umbrella Revolution laid a foundation for democracy and universal suffrage in the future, the bottom line is that little has changed.
Thankfully, there are now hopeful signs that Americans are starting to understand why voting is so critical. A recent study by Pew Research Centre showed an increase in registered voters over the past 30-plus years, at least for the primaries. Democrat turnout as of March was 11.7 per cent – the highest since 1992, except for a spike in 2008. And in the first 12 primaries of 2016, the combined Republican turnout was 17 per cent of eligible voters, the highest since 1980. In my home state in California, the number of registered voters hit an all-time high – 18 million for the primary election alone.
Really, there is no excuse not to vote. The majority of Americans now use a mail-in ballot, which is convenient. The state-level department of motor vehicles has also made it easier, by allowing people to register when they apply for a driving licence or ID card. In some states, lawmakers are pushing through bills to make voting even easier. In Colorado, for instance, everyone registered is sent a ballot, and there are drop-offs throughout the state.
I have now taken the plunge and filled out all the necessary paperwork. What prompted me? Maybe it was the outrageous comments from Donald Trump. Or maybe it’s as simple as the joy of knowing that I have the power to make a choice.
Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator