Yesterday, I voted for the first time. In many ways, it felt like my baptism into the world of American politics.
Having emigrated from the U.S. at age five and only returning here for college, I’m still in the process of conceptualizing my American citizenship as more than just a navy-blue passport. As such, the 2018 Midterm Election constitutes the first time I’m using said passport to serve something larger than myself — larger than visa-free travel or, honestly, admission to an American university. I’m using it for democracy! This new reality is exciting but also a little scary — which sounds about right given that voting is the lifeblood of our system of government.
Although I act poetic about voting now, I was hesitant to vote until recently. I wasn’t hesitant because I thought my vote wouldn’t matter. (All votes matter, even in California!) Rather, I worried that my vote wouldn’t be justified. While StanfordVotes touted the ease of becoming a voter at-large, I was doubtful of my capacity to become a quality voter. I’d lived in California for about 30 weeks — who was I to elect its Superintendent of Education or ratify spending on water infrastructure? Sure, I listened to three political podcasts, read political commentary for pleasure and was unwittingly on-track to fulfilling a political science major. Yet, I wondered, was I really American enough to be justified in civic engagement?
Clearly, this line of thinking is problematic. Letting migration history overshadow my commitment to a better country seems a troubling internalization of the (already too widespread) rhetoric of voter suppression.
Now, upon reflection, I know better. I know the only qualifier on a vote is the depth of research prefacing it, not arbitrary identity markers. Consequently, I’ve been poring over my ballot, researching tricky propositions and their even trickier media coverage. I do so because my ballot is not merely a hypothetical — it will enact tangible change: It will elevate certain people to power and set in motion changes in everything from statewide infrastructure to healthcare. This eventual tangibility gives my Americanism more than the flimsiness of a passport.
Abstractly, voting gives us citizenship both by serving as our voice and by protecting us from suppressive voices. The urgency of the latter feature is evinced by how, just a few days ago, President Trump adopted a desire to revoke birthright citizenship. Although such revocation is highly improbable, the threat should make us take stock of what citizenship implicates in terms of rights.
Being a birthright citizen, I found the claim to revoke the 14th Amendment a reminder of how most of our canonical status-based rights are enforced by government solely on the basis of citizenship. For example, a North Korean national’s human right to free expression cannot be realized via the First Amendment, but an American’s equivalent right necessarily is. In the 21st century, for better or worse, citizenship determines our enjoyment of many inviolable dignities. Our current president is content to strip these dignities from some Americans. Therefore, voting in this Midterm Election meant fortifying my citizenship and its dignities from presidential whims.
By voting, we become American in a full-hearted, not just a symbolic, sense. This fact applies to everyone in America, whether you’re a fifth-generation American or were naturalized yesterday. Citizenship gives you the vote, but in a vital way, voting also gives you citizenship.
Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.