In a recent reunion episode of The West Wing, the original cast got together in an empty Los Angeles theater to re-enact “Hartsfield’s Landing” – an episode from the third season of the show on the eve of the New Hampshire primary – to promote voting. The episode was a good choice for the set goal: in the most Sorkin-esque way possible, this episode highlights the civic duty behind voting: from Toby making a case for making the election about engaged and disengaged, and qualified and unqualified to the plotline about Taiwan being in a standoff with China for just thinking about holding elections.
Getting involved in US politics and the election process as a foreigner is both entertaining and terrifying. When the 2016 election rolled around, it was clear that everything we considered a norm and convention has changed. But was this an anomaly or a unambiguous turn of events?
In “How Democracies Die” Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that it is hard to spot an autocrat from a distance and democracies rely on gatekeepers. This is how they explain the emergence of Donald Trump: he bypassed the gatekeepers. They argue that since the end of the Cold War, many governments, and subsequently democracies, were “overthrown” at the ballot boxes, not through coup d’états. This article in Foreign Affairs offers a similar argument: famous autocrats like Chávez and Erdoğan came to power by slowly dismantling their democracies, and gaining power through their populist platforms.
Milian Svolik says that political polarization “undermines” people’s ability to act as a check on democratic processes, because people put partisan interests above everything. Quite often, the blame for electing Donald Trump is put on the electorate, especially on people who stayed at home. And political polarization in the United States has been on the rise for years, according to Pew Research.
The election process in the United States is fascinating to watch. It is a process that involves many people, and it makes you want to engage, even if you are a foreigner like me, and can’t even vote. There are many ways to get involved and typically people knock on doors, phonebank, and donate money. When I knocked on doors for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections, it seemed very odd; I thought I was bothering people and that I will be shushed away. To my surprise, many voters were enthusiastic about the process. To them, even if it was a nuisance, it was how “things have always been done.”
But before you can vote, you have to first register to vote. Per World Population Review, number of registered voters varies by state, from 50% in Hawai’i to 77% in Maine. There are many obstacles that come with registering to vote: voter ID laws, exact name match laws, deadlines, voter rolls purging, and many others.
Center for Community Engagement at Suffolk University launched a project called “Suffolk Votes” which aims to register as many students as possible. I had a chance to participate in the so-called “Suffolk Raps” and attend two undergraduate classes to register students to vote. To my surprise, many of the students were already registered. But another question is – will they end up voting?
This election season is a tough one. There is an ongoing pandemic: many people have run into issues with mail-in ballots, there are not enough poll workers, many polling locations are closed; but with that said, some states are already setting records for turnout.
Just like Taiwan in “Hartsfield’s Landing” has to fight to hold elections, many countries in real life have to hold pro-democracy protests in the middle of a pandemic and demand fair elections: Thailand, Belarus, Chile, Venezuela, Israel, Nigeria and others. Do not take your vote for granted. Make sure to vote between now and two weeks from now.