This morning I marched into the voting booth for the first time ever. In this country, that is. When I was younger and living in Italy I voted, but it took me 15 years of (legal) residence in the US to finally decide that I was here to stay, and might as well become a citizen and regain the right to vote.
Actually, what initially gave me the impetus to apply for citizenship was a move by the so-called New Gingrich Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives back in 1994 with their "contract with America." One of the little-known things they did was to propose legislature that took away Social Security benefits from legal residents (who, however, would still have to pay SS taxes). Asked on National Public Radio if this wasn't a bit unfair and an easy shot against people who had no right to vote and therefore were an easy target, the proponent of the bill replied to the effect that "they always have the option to become citizens." Indeed, we do, buster, and I did become a citizen, and it was with immense pleasure that this morning I voted across the board against the party that formulated that legislation a decade ago.
(Side note: when I visited Boston I saw the ship that started the American revolution against the British. The revolutionary battle cry is written there in capital letters: “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION!” Hmm, for some time when I was living in Knoxville, TN, I considered the possibility of organizing a rally of legal residents – who pay taxes but ain't represented – and have a Tennessee River grits party analogous to the famous Boston tea party. I should have done it before moving to New York, it will be one of the few regrets of my life.)
Anyway, all this voting talk has crystallized in my mind one more reason why this country isn't exactly the self-professed "best democracy" in the world (though it may very well be the best democracy that money can buy). It seems clear that the US system is built around the idea of discouraging the vote as much as legally possible. Consider the following: first of all, in most civilized countries elections are held over two days, and they are held during the weekend or on a holiday. In the US it is one day, and it's a workday, so that people have to jump through extra hoops to exercise their right to vote. Guess who is least likely to take time off for voting? But of course, minorities and the poor, i.e. the constituencies that often vote for progressive change.
Second, in most Western countries people are automatically registered to vote as soon as they turn 18; in the US, instead, one has to take the initiative and actually register. While the process isn't difficult (I just went through it), it is a truism of human psychology that one easy way to discourage someone from doing something is to put the burden of action on the subject (and please, don't give me crap about "if they don't even bother to register why should they vote," ok?). Finally, it is very difficult to find basic information about voting. For example, this being my first time, I didn't know at what time polling stations would open and close, something I needed to know in order to plan on voting before going to work, during a break, or after work. It took me a long time of searching the Net to find out that little bit of information, which wasn't prominently displayed (as one might reasonably expect) on either local newspaper or government websites!
Finally, and I'm sure the faithful reader knew this was coming, it's mostly the Republicans' fault. Yes, this is one of my "inflammatory" statements (a synonym for unpleasant truth, in some circles), but hear me out first. Which party has been consistently against legislative initiatives -- such as the so-called "motor-voter" registration (which makes it possible for people to register when they get a driver license) -- that facilitate the goal of universal access to voting? Which party has consistently attempted to disenfranchise minorities and the poor, for example by automatically exclude from the voting rolls in Florida anybody whose name was the same as that of a convicted felon, and then removing them only if the interested person actually filed a request with the State? You guessed it: the Republicans! And they say I'm paranoid...