When I think about the US elections, I increasingly ask myself, “What is American citizenship, and who gets to be a part of it?” When we talk about ‘we’ — both in the formal ‘we the people’ sense and the colloquial ‘our country’ sense — who are we talking about? Can voting change the boundaries and institutions of that ‘we’ or, for that matter, of anything else?
When I spoke to some of my American peers — all of whom were raised in various places in the United States and have experienced the American state through gender markers, racial discrimination, police violence, corporations, or unaffordable medications — I found that the question of voting, and the puzzle of how to have a voice in the political process, was really complicated for everyone. Ultimately, however, we all plan to mail in our ballots before November.
A sampling of America’s brutal history — which includes slavery, the Trail of Tears, using ‘model minorities’ as a racial wedge, and imperialism — shows that the American state was created to commit and profit from violence against racialized people internally and externally, while simultaneously hyper-privileging individuals based on a variety of inequitably distributed factors such as race, gender, wealth, and socioeconomic status.
Voting thus seems like the built-in route for representation in a system committed to the opposite. We are frustrated and exhausted, and many of us, because of our racial or gender identity, have been politically silenced, whether at the polls, through institutions meant to ‘protect’ us, or via the struggles of growing up in an America where people have widely internalized notions linked to race, class, gender, and wealth about who belongs in the country, even before 2016. Nonetheless, this election is a conversation about the ‘we.’
When the state does everything it can to exclude parts of that ‘we,’ we must still claim that citizenship for ourselves. It is not just our right, but our responsibility — both for ourselves, and for the sake of everyone fighting for survival.
Voting is an important statement. It is a reassertion, a way of deliberately being part of the conversation, proving that we have the numbers to demand changes to our institutions — especially when our institutions do so much to keep out vulnerable populations. When it comes to the Black and Latinx communities in particular, voter suppression and disenfranchisement are unfortunate but undeniable realities.
Voting gives us a chance to speak up and elect someone more likely to bring positive change than President Donald Trump, in the hopes that it may help — or even save — some lives.
One reason our bigoted, discriminatory, and violent institutions have been permitted to stay that way for so long is not only that people don’t vote, but that they are actively prevented from voting. However, choosing not to vote exacerbates disenfranchisement. So, we’ve got to fight back, and I think we have a meaningful opportunity to do that this election — particularly from a distance. After we’ve been socialized to stay silent, this is one way to have a voice.
The candidates we have standing before us today are the ‘we’ that was imagined by the founders. Like Trump, Joe Biden is also a straight, cisgender, wealthy white man who has unabashedly made racist comments in the past and has been accused of sexual misconduct. Supporting Biden feels hollow because it means supporting and legitimizing many things we despise in order to get rid of a president we despise.
Of course, institutional change won’t happen solely through voting, but with Biden, there’s a possibility that it could start. There’s still hope that a Biden presidency could start the process of bringing changes we want to see, particularly by giving an opening to the Democratic progressive wing led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who are fighting to change the political system from the inside and alleviate structural inequalities. As the situation becomes more urgent, all of us need to act quickly and responsibly.
A close friend of one American student I spoke to is setting up a GoFundMe right now just to afford medical treatment — they do not have the privilege to wait much longer for change. For the communities that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and the Trump administration’s mismanagement, acting now is critical.
Voting now is particularly important for Americans who are living in Canada. Given the US role as a — contested — political and economic hegemon on the international stage, the decisions and policies of American leaders have an international impact, and often a more damaging international than domestic impact.
Transnational issues such as climate policies, trade and international cooperation on a COVID-19 vaccine, and managing the pandemic affect everyone — from Americans residing overseas to innocent citizens of other countries. So we must act responsibly when it comes to the decision to vote.
Furthermore, according to some, Americans in Canada are in a particularly unique situation: there are more Americans living in Canada than in any other country outside the US. If all the approximately one million Americans living in Canada who are eligible to vote in the US election turned out, this bloc could potentially become an important deciding factor in the US 2020 election.
Ordinarily, less than six per cent of the American-Canadian population vote. In a ‘we’ in which swing states and voter suppression decide the nation’s leadership, voting this election from Canada can present a real opportunity for change — and may even be able to make up for silent internal suppression and mismanagement. And in the end if they invalidate all our ballots, they’ll be left with an extremely visible and problematic number. So if there’s a way to undeniably show that we have the numbers, this is it.
Without a doubt, Trump has exacerbated and highlighted the issues of racialized communities, the fragility of the gains made by women and the LGBTQ+ community, and the painfully wretched state of the American health care system. None of it began with Trump, and it isn’t going to end with him either. Yet voting, showing that we matter, is a start.
Voting now is a way to show the discrepancies between what our institutions are doing, and what we want them to be doing. It is also an affirmation of citizenship, and a form of self-given acceptance into the ‘we.’ There’s also a chance for meaningful legislation that can improve and even save lives. We can’t stop protesting, donating, calling for curriculum changes, signing petitions, and supporting radical organizers for institutional change. But at the same time, within the system, there is still a sliver of hope — and it’s worth going for.
Zara Lal is a fourth-year international relations and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations student at Victoria College. She is the president of the Near and Middle East Student Union and co-editor of the Near and Middle East Student Journal.