First: To Vote, or Not to Vote, that is the question

Nov 17, 2010 by Sharon W.

Two Sundays before the midterm elections, my grandmother comes over and pulls out a letter for my mom to read. My grandma knows several specks of English, but, having moved here from China less than twenty years ago, she usually needs help reading, writing, or defining the finer details of the official statements she received. My grandma, in the middle of discussing with my mom, flashes a piece of white paper at me. I, interest already stoked by the Chinese words I recognized as "governor" and "elect," grab it and read it; it's in Chinese, but the bubbles and letters clearly mark it as instructions for the ballot. I explain, happily, and offer to help her with it, and my mom, unabashed, resigns her authority on the matter.

With translational help from my mom, I start from the top: "Who do you want to vote for senator?"

And my grandma says, "I want to vote for the moustache guy." (Translated almost word-for-word from Chinese.)

I look at her, completely confused. My mom, unhelpfully, repeats the phrase. My grandma takes out an election mailing, one for Neil Abercrombie and Brian Schatz, and shows it to me. It clicks: Abercrombie has a moustache.

"So, governor." She nods. I fill in the bubble. "What about senator? Representative?"

"Just that one." Then she says, in an aside to my mom in a way that makes me feel like she doesn't think I can understand her, "Mrs. Li* told me to vote for him."

Two things, though unsurprising, jarred me: one, my grandmother had a funny nickname for Abercrombie, a clear sign of her unfamiliarity with political process; two, my grandma listened to someone who may or may not have an ulterior motive for telling her to vote so. I know, personally, that some people vote without noticing the candidate's promises, debates, or positions. Bias happens as it does, so instead of being tested by a critical, knowledgeable majority, the candidates are weighed by a critical, knowledgeable minority. It seems shallow to watch political theory be cross-examined by political pundits, but in general, this is true: certain types of people do vote for certain types of candidates. The fight is won by swinging individuals-- the rest are blind.

But relating this feeling to my grandmother jarred me. On one hand, ignorance of politics is a real danger; if she knows nothing about the candidate, she should not vote lest someone take advantage of that (vote-buying in The Jungle comes to mind). On the other hand, she's a citizen with the right to vote; and I know how ambitious she was by attempting the citizenship test and passing it. Respect for my elders compounded respect for her as a person; I could not see myself telling her not to vote, when she had actively sought that right by becoming a citizen.

So instead of griping about the people's lack of interest in the fine grit of politics, I drive myself giddy by celebrating the fact that people actually vote-- and actually care about participating in civil duty. In my experience, not voting is more common than voting (half of my family probably don't even know when Election Day is bar a presidential election year); and it is better to care a little than not at all.

Of course, the next step is to get people to care more about what they're doing while they're at the voting booth.

* Mrs. Li: Arbitrary name of Chinese translator whom grandmother usually asks for advice.


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