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22 Oct 2008

Voting – Yesterday I cast my vote for the 2008 presidential election. This is the second general election in which I have voted since arriving in Korea, meaning that I have now voted in more presidential elections while living outside the U.S. than I did while living inside the U.S. Of course, I only voted in one presidential election while living in the U.S., so I suppose it doesn’t really take much to break that record.

“ would be nice to think that my vote actually counted for something, and that it wasn’t a futile gesture. But it’s hard to convince myself of that sometimes.”

The 1992 presidential election was the first time I was old enough to vote, and I was excited to go to the polls in Broome County, New York (where I was going to school at the time) and make my voice heard. After I voted, I felt like I was finally part of the system that determines how our country is governed.

In 1995, one year before the next presidential election, I moved to Korea. 1996 was an interesting year for me, and voting was not foremost on my mind. Besides, voting by absentee ballot is not quite as simple as just going to a polling place—at least, that’s what I thought at the time. 2000 came and went, and again I didn’t vote. In 2004, though, I wasn’t happy with the direction the nation had taken in my absence—I tell you, I leave the country for ten years and look what happens!—so I decided that maybe it was time I once again exercised my right to vote. So I did. The process of registering to vote as an absentee voter is slightly on the tedious side, but essentially all it involves is mailing some forms in and waiting. Then they send you a ballot that you fill out and mail back. It’s actually quite simple.

And now we’re in 2008 and I have just voted in a presidential election for the third time in my life. These are the only elections (well, these and Senate elections) I will be voting in as long as I am in Korea, since my voting status is “special federal voter.” I got this status because of my answer to a particular question on one of the various forms I had to send in. The question was something along the lines of: “Do you plan to return to the United States and, if so, take up residence in the voting district in which you are currently registered?” Actually, I think it was worded a lot more simply than that, but that’s the basic idea. I answered honestly: no. The chances of me returning to the United States are pretty good, but the chances of me moving back to where I am now registered to vote are pretty slim. After sending in this form, I received a notification that my voter status had been changed to “special federal voter,” which means the only elections I vote in are Senate and presidential elections.

I’m also an independent voter, which means I don’t vote in primaries. This is something else that I changed after voting in Korea for the first time, mainly because I just didn’t want to be affiliated with either party. A cynical person might say that I also didn’t want to bother with primary elections, and that person would not be entirely wrong. Even voting in presidential elections is a pretty big deal for me, because (as I mentioned above) for the longest time I just couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t just the hassle of getting an absentee ballot (which isn’t really that much of a hassle at all), to be honest. It was more the thought that my vote doesn’t really count.

This was brought home to me once again when I filled out my ballot yesterday. The names of the candidates appear in large print underneath the names of the parties that endorse them. Between the party name and the names of the candidates, though, is a line of much finer print—“electors for”—so that the whole thing reads (for example), “Republican electors for John McCain/Sarah Palin.” When I fill in those ovals next to the candidates’ names, I’m not voting for the candidates, I am voting for the electors.

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of the Electoral College, but the fact of the matter is that I am registered to vote in a blue state. The last time New York voted for a Republican candidate was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale by the largest margin in U.S. history. In the six presidential elections since that time, New York has gone with the Democratic candidate, for better or for worse. And it’s pretty much a given that New York will be going to Obama this time around. Regardless of how I voted, it would be nice to think that my vote actually counted for something, and that it wasn’t a futile gesture. But it’s hard to convince myself of that sometimes.

So why did I vote? I’ve heard people say that voting gives you the right to complain when things don’t go the way you want them to go. Maybe it does, but it seems to me to be a rather cynical reason to vote. And I’m not sure it makes much sense anyway. Once a president (or other official) is elected, that individual represents every member of their constituent, whether those people voted for or against him or her, or didn’t vote at all. And it’s not like they check your voting records if you show up at a protest. I suppose the positive way to look at it would be to say that if you don’t like the way things are, you should do your part to change them—which of course just brings us back to the idea of votes in non-swing states not really counting.

I could go around in circles like this all day, but I did vote, so obviously I had a reason. I’m not the politically active type, so if I voted it certainly wasn’t out of habit. The reason I voted is that I believe my vote does make a difference. Yeah, New York is blue, and it’s almost certain to continue along that path in this election, but if all the Democratic voters were convinced that their votes didn’t count because New York was going blue anyway, and they simply didn’t vote, then suddenly New York might find itself red. And if all the Republicans failed to vote for the same reason, there might never be a change in New York’s color.

No matter how the election turns out, and no matter which way New York goes, I was a part of that process, for better or for worse. I don’t really care too much about the right to complain, but voting does allow me to reconnect with something that seems so far away at times. It’s a right, but in a way I feel that it is also a duty—a duty that I neglected for quite a few years here in Korea.

I don’t really know how to wrap this one up—putting a nice, tidy ending on this disjointed bundle of thoughts is like trying to wrap cottage cheese. I will say this, though: if you’re eligible to vote, and you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth it, the answer is: yes, it’s worth it. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your country.

And that’s probably as patriotic as you’ll ever see me get.

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