In some ways, it was harder for me to believe that Barack Obama would get reelected than it was to believe that he was elected the first time. Surely, four years after that groundbreaking moment in American history, the novelty and excitement of a non-white president would have worn off, and the record-high voter turnout that had propelled Obama into the White House in 2008 would return to its previous lows.
This thought kept me up at night.
In 2012, I was just starting to get into my first “real” job as a digital journalist for Gulf News, the largest English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. Even on the other side of the world, the Obama-Romney faceoff was all over the news. I followed the campaign obsessively from my cubicle, in between writing and articles.
In 2008, I was only 16, too young to cast a ballot. I was also far from home. While I was perhaps better informed about the Obama-McCain elections than the average teen in Anytown, USA, I felt deeply isolated. An amazing, unprecedented, world-changing thing was happening, and I wouldn’t be there to witness and experience it.
Four years later, I was finally old enough, but I was still so far away. I always imagined my first real voting experience in front of a ballot box, behind a little curtain, small American flags waving in the hands of the excited volunteers I anticipated surrounding me as I cast my first ballot.
So, while it didn’t play out quite the way I pictured it, I learned you don’t have to live in the United States to exercise your right to vote. Actively deployed service people and American expats can fill out an absentee ballot application via the state they are registered to vote in, and then mail in the necessary paperwork in that state prior to election day. In 2012, 23.3 million people cast military or civilian absentee ballots. I was one of those people.
It was a nerve-wracking experience. First, I had to actually register to vote. It took more time and effort than I care to admit to determine which state I should register in because I wasn’t sure of our last recorded address. I finally dug up the address of our old Oklahoma home and ultimately registered there. When I pulled up the appropriate ballot it was full of names I didn’t recognize – people running for governor and senator and assemblyperson. I’d made a point of registering as an independent, and at first, I looked up the candidates so I could make educated choices. With the deadline rapidly approaching and wanting to stay true to my values, I decided to vote a straight Democratic ticket. That done, I went to the post office and mailed it in.
But my hand-wringing didn’t stop there. I felt like my vote for Obama wouldn’t make a difference in Oklahoma. I wasn’t wrong. Romney won Oklahoma by more than twice the votes. After all the work I’d done to vote in, I felt like it was wasted.
So why did I take the time to register, research and vote? Obama would lose Oklahoma regardless of my decision. And honestly, I had my doubts about his leadership and accomplishments. The economy was still weak and American troops were as mired in Afghanistan and Iraq as they’d ever been. The 2010 elections brought Republicans and Tea Partiers to Congress in droves, and they were now singularly focused on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Guantanamo Bay was still open, and while he had received a Nobel Peace Prize, the world did not seem any more peaceful than it had been before he took office.
Was casting a pointless vote for someone whose first term had carried as many disappointments as successes really worth it?
Six years later, I can say with certainty that it absolutely was, and not just because Obama won.
2012 was a volatile year. I was living in a region overwhelmed by upheaval and violence, and it seemed that every day brought worse news, whether it was in Egypt, Syria, or Libya. On a personal level, I was fumbling through a new adult life, unsure of what I was doing, unclear about what I wanted to achieve and what I wanted my future to look. A lot of the time, I felt like things were being done to me; I was the object of a sentence instead of its subject.
Voting was a way to reclaim my agency. I could cast my ballot and say, “Yes, Oklahoma, I know you don’t really care what I have to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. This is who I want to be president. I know you disagree. I’m still going to say it.”
Voting made me the subject of the sentence.
In some ways, 2018 is a lot like 2012. The world is in chaos, and every day is filled with horrifying news about the Russia probe, Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong-Un, the Iran nuclearization deal, the massacre of protestors in Gaza…the list is endless. We’ve lost a lot in the last two years, too. Even though DACA was a band aid to help the DREAMers, it was unceremoniously and viciously ripped off by the Trump administration.
Here in Nevada, Trump wants to dump nuclear waste on our land, and his attacks on the national parks system threaten our most beautiful natural lands. There’s not much you can do from your couch except be grateful for what little peace we still have and hope worse doesn’t come to worst, but that’s hardly inspiring or exciting.
Once again, this election season, I am reminding myself that the act of voting is critically important for our country but also for me personally. Yes, there is a lot outside of our control. Yes, our actions are limited. But voting is a profound action. The most important time to claim agency and act it out is when you feel like it will make the least amount of difference. When you feel erased or ignored, that’s the time to find a rooftop to shout from it.
I use my vote to shout, and in doing so, I affirm my ability to act.