I love voting. I’m not a person given to bursts of civic enthusiasm, generally, but even in Manhattan, where voting involves queuing in some school’s smelly gymnasium that’s been repurposed with voting booths, or in a community centre where announcements for “Mommy and me” dance classes hang on the wall next to booths with precinct numbers, voting makes me cheerful. Others might grumble as they wait for the polling place volunteers to flip through the vast books of voter registration pages to find their name, but not me. I love the ritual of pulling shut the curtain of the voting booth so I can work its toggles and levers in private. The machines were hardly state-of-the-art, but at least they never produced a “hanging chad”, like the machines in Florida gave us in 2000.
On Tuesday, I voted in the Democratic primary using an even more old-fashioned method: a slip of paper stuffed into a ballot box emblazoned with flags and “I voted” stickers. An organisation called Global Democrats, founded in the 1960s to help overseas voters, had set up a polling place in town and Americans came from all over Abu Dhabi to cast their vote.
The mood was celebratory – the way voting should be – and felt very local, even though we were all very far from home. No one grumbled about the shortage of pens for filling in forms, no one threw an elbow in the queue; instead, friends snapped photos of one another dropping ballots in the ballot box. If that festive mood could be replicated at polling places in the United States, I thought to myself, perhaps voter turnout would be higher.
Low voter turnout is one of the United States’ great embarrassments (several others are campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination): about 60 per cent of eligible voters voted in the 2012 presidential election, and far fewer voted in the 2014 midterm Congressional election.
More eloquent people than I have pointed out the hideous irony of Americans blithely forgoing a right that people around the world (and in the US) have fought so bitterly to achieve. When I told an Australian friend about voter apathy, she was shocked. In Australia, people are fined if they don’t vote, a strategy that, were America to adopt it, might solve the problem of the country’s national debt.
Maybe what we need is a voting app – iVote, perhaps, or iElect, or Presidential Tinder. Could we cure voter apathy if we could just swipe people into office?
I brought my younger son with me so that he could choose whether Hillary or Bernie’s name went into the ballot box, a decision that he took quite seriously, debating with himself until the final moment. We went to vote straight after school, so he was still wearing his school uniform when he dropped the ballot into the box.
It was moment both global and American: my son, whose family tree includes a Filipina grandmother and a Parsi grandfather, helping me vote in a Democratic primary held on the grounds of an American school in the United Arab Emirates. We were surrounded by other American voters – people of all races and colours, all freely exercising our right to vote in “Arabia”, the place that conservative America loves to demonise.
The entire experience served as a rebuttal to the xenophobia that has been on ugly display in the United States lately; it suggested that civic and national pride do not automatically have to curdle into jingoism.
Voting in Abu Dhabi – like voting in New York – reminds me that “America” comes in all shapes and sizes; the country needs leaders who hear the full range of voices and not just their own words reverberating in an echo chamber. One of the many shocking things about the Trump candidacy has been his refusal to entertain any opinion other than his own – and the other GOP candidates seem equally willing to shut down criticism at almost any cost. Their insularity bodes ill for the American body politic. Maybe they should come to “Arabia” and see what democracy looks like.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi