Get out and vote, America, and show the world that democracy works

Keane Shum says past electoral results have shown that every vote counts, and Americans in Hong Kong and mainland China must demonstrate the value of an informed citizenry for the presidential election

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 5:40pm

One freezing Friday night eight years ago, I rode a bus overnight to Columbia, South Carolina, caught a couple hours of sleep on the floor of the local YMCA gym, then drove around asking strangers to get out and vote in the South Carolina presidential primary. It was the most I could do to participate in that election, or in any American election. I am a sucker for so many slices of Americana, but, born in Australia and raised in Hong Kong, I am not actually American myself.

So to all of you who are citizens of the United States of America – the 60,000 in Hong Kong and over 70,000 more on the mainland – if I can knock on doors in South Carolina when it was 2 degrees Celsius outside, to help kindle your democracy, you can register to vote.

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My American friends in Hong Kong, mostly from California or New York, say their votes wouldn’t matter. A single vote in a non-swing state? Inconsequential, they say – wasted time and effort.

My friends are wrong. There are more Americans in Hong Kong and mainland China than in Columbia, the capital and largest city of South Carolina. Your votes, even in non-swing states, can be of huge consequence.

Your individual vote matters. A single vote determined the winner in state legislature elections in Montana in 2004 and Alaska in 2008. The result in Montana gave Democrats control of one entire house of the state legislature, as did a 2014 election in Virginia decided by 11 votes. The race for the governor of Washington state in 2004 was won by 133 votes, out of 2.8 million cast. Then there was, of course, the 2000 presidential election: 537 votes in Florida, out of 6 million cast in the state and 101 million nationwide, tipped the Electoral College balance and made George W. Bush the 43rd president of the United States.

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Your vote matters even if it’s not in a swing state. There are close races for Congress and governors, and state legislatures and local officials, in every state and district.

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And while the national popular vote does not officially count, it counts politically. Bush would not have been re-elected in 2004 had he not carried Ohio by 120,000 votes, but he memorably claimed a mandate for the war in Iraq on the strength of his three-million vote margin in the popular vote.

It doesn’t take much time or effort. Instead of spending the next 15 minutes YouTubing the latest Donald Trump zinger and bemoaning the demagogues and dynasties in US politics, go to and learn how to register and request your absentee ballot.

Show us how it’s done, Americans. Show us that constitutional democracy can work the way it’s supposed to, that a participative, informed and diverse citizenry can prevail over hate-baiting and fearmongering. For those of you who have come to call Hong Kong and China home, you know that if this election goes a certain way, the cadres in Beijing will lord it over us for the next 30 years, citing it as the best example of the worst of democracy. That’s what happens when you let the people decide, they will say; the tyranny of the masses.

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Democracy anywhere is by definition inchoate. But in Hong Kong, whatever effort we make, however many of us turn out in the streets or at the ballot box, someone else ultimately decides how – or whether – to improve our democracy. In America, the only thing holding you back is you.

Donald Trump likes to use what he calls “truthful hyperbole” to describe some of his less than factual proclamations. But there’s nothing hyperbolic about the gravity of this American election, for the entire world, and for Hong Kong in particular. There’s only the truth: your vote matters.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong