In 2004 I became a citizen of the United States after having a Green Card for almost 20 years. I became a U.S. citizen for many reasons. I wanted to work at a job that I loved that required U.S. citizenship, to get a passport in a reasonable amount of time, and I no longer wanted to deal with the stigma of everyone in human resources knowing I was an immigrant. I wanted to be able to vote in elections.
I remember the first election I wanted to participate in was in 2000 with Al Gore versus George Bush. I had strong feelings about what I wanted the future to look like and felt powerless to have any impact since I had no legal voice. I promised myself that I would get my U.S. citizenship once I graduated.
For those born in the United States, you are automatically citizens upon birth and do not know the long process you must go through to become a U.S. citizen to have the right to vote. When you are preparing to become a citizen, you cannot apply when you arrive in the United States. First, you have to be a Green Card holder for at least five years, be at least 18 years old, able to read, write, and speak basic English, and be of good moral character. Then go through the 10 steps to naturalization, including filling out the N-400 form to apply, biometrics, a test, an interview, an oath of allegiance to the United States, and a ceremony. It is a long process taking six months or more to complete.
Although I had grown up mainly in the United States and already was very much a part of the United States, there is something special you feel once you are approved and pass your test to become a U.S. citizen. The months you spent studying U.S. history for a test that most U.S. citizens by birth could not pass, the excitement of receiving your certificate of naturalization, and the crowded ceremony you attend to pledge your oath of allegiance. Like any great achievement, you want to make the most of it. New citizens are often thrilled with the possibilities ahead of them and the ability to travel to almost anywhere in the world with ease.
By becoming a citizen, you appreciate that maybe for the first time in your life, depending on what country you were originally from, you have a voice in society and can use it to make changes in the wealthiest country in the world. It is powerful.
Most newly-minted citizens can hardly wait for the first election they get to vote in, be counted, be seen and know that what they think matters.
It is often disheartening for these new citizens to hear those born with the right to vote disregard it as nothing special, making no difference, or refusing to participate. Even though it is easy to understand how people have lost trust in government, it is the current system we have to make a change. Since the system in place has worked for over 200 years, I reached out to Aklima Khondoker, Chief Legal Officer of The New Georgia Project, an organization focused on voter registration and advocacy, to find out how the system works and why we should vote.
The American Election
One of the American election hallmarks used to be a smooth transition of power every four years when it came to the presidential election. The United States is a democratic republic meaning that the government operates on the principles of both a republic and a democracy.
It essentially means the nation functions upon common principles in republics and democracies. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a republic as “a political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” In other words, there are a group of citizens elected or appointed to represent the people in a republic. Still, with a democracy, the power is theoretically in the hands of usually all voting citizens. A democratic republic is a mixture of the two. (Democracy and Me)
When the election system was created, the founders felt that they made the electoral college to ensure that the best candidate is selected. It was built in part as a compromise and safety net between the election of the President by a vote in Congress and the popular vote of qualified citizens.
Due to the fallout of 2020, many citizens in the United States and onlookers worldwide have begun to question the current system in place.
Do votes make a difference?
“For those who feel that their vote does not matter, I like to let them know they are heard and have every right to feel that way. And the reason why they have every right to feel that way is that we cannot ignore the history of democracy in this country. We cannot ignore the fight that people have considerably weighted through to find their way towards access to democracy. We cannot ignore that. We know that for black, brown immigrant, and indigenous women communities, the right to vote has been untenable for them just throughout the history of our democracy. So, number one, I hear you, and I understand why you believe and feel that your vote doesn’t count. However, that being said, your right to vote does matter. Your right to vote is fundamental to change within your community.
Though you may feel like your vote doesn’t carry much weight, that right to vote does carry weight, which should bring you to the ballot box. What should determine who you vote for and how you vote should come from the principles of your community.
The power of your vote still counts, and that right is powerful. So please do exercise it because it is through that right to vote that we can begin to see change. And the more of us who mobilize and show up to the ballot box, the more difficult it will be for others to ignore us even if you don’t believe it will make a difference. Even if you think, oh, things will go along the way, they always have. If you have an issue that matters to you, people in your community whose life and dignity matter to you, show up for them and bring other people you care about to show up with you because together, we can inspire change.”
In support of Ms. Khondoker’s encouragement for Americans to vote, the short segment by the Pew Research Center called Trust in America: Do Americans Trust Their Elections; noted that trust in the government must be reestablished to work towards change since confidence in American elections is declining. The segment points explicitly to the January 6th, 2021, insurrection where Trump supporters stormed the U.S. capital. The feature points to the complexity of the voting system on the national level and the fact that many Americans do not understand how various methods of voting work.
What Does Voter Suppression Look Like?
“In a real-world view, if you live in a community with 10 voting sites available and your county decides to consolidate most of those sites only to one place for you to vote. Suppose you have one place for you to vote and you’re a community of, let’s say, 100,000 or so. In that case, it is untenable and impossible for the board of elections to accommodate all voters at that particular location. If that is the case, there will be a barrier for people to show up to vote.”
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, has noted that over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box. States have been imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which received a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans but placing extraordinary burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.
Explain How the Shelby County v. Holder Case Put the Voting Rights Act in Danger?
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in particular, section two of the Voting Rights Act is the most powerful tool from the federal government to protect against disenfranchisement, particularly in communities of color. So what the voting rights act of 1965 does and says is that you cannot discriminate against people of color when it comes to voting. And not only that, you cannot install systems in practices that would make it more difficult or disproportionately more harmful for communities of color to access the ballot. Section two originally did this through the pre-clearance requirement under section five. That pre-clearance requirement says that states with a history of discrimination, particularly the southern states who have disproportionately marginalized and kicked people of color out of the ballot, are required to pre-clear or get approval from the federal government.
For example, whenever they decide to install any significant election changes. We’re talking about voter ID requirements, absentee ballot requests, requirements, and voting place moves and changes. Things like that would have to go to the department of justice to ensure that people of color were not disproportionately impacted or would be disenfranchised by those types of changes. Because again, using history as our guide in this nation has demonstrated that people of color have disproportionately been impacted by systematic racism, making it more difficult to access the ballot. In 2013 with the Shelby V Holder decision, our Supreme court essentially decided that the pre-clearance requirement no longer needed to be abided. In their wisdom, they believe that racism is no longer a thing, particularly in these Southern states.
So we don’t have to apply additional scrutiny for these election changes. They instead said, well, you know what? It’s up to the state to decide how they want to manage their elections. They don’t need additional recite from the federal government. These Southern states, including Georgia, where I am at, let loose and went wild. We have seen this with voter ID requirement changes, particularly in Texas and Arizona, making it more difficult for folks to register, vote, or get their absentee ballot. In particular, people who are trans folks who may have their gender identity not match what’s on their ID.”
What Are the Three Ways Voter Suppression Can Be Prevented?
“Number one, understand our history. When I say that, I mean our factual history; please do not buy into misinformation and disinformation; consider your source of information and news. Please not rely on what Facebook and Twitter, and other insular groups are trying to tell you. Look at trusted, reputable, independent sources for information about our history because you should learn how our country has come to be the way it is. You need to know about the issues that are important to you and the communities that are most impacted by the decisions that our government makes.
Number two, register to vote; whether you feel like it doesn’t count or doesn’t matter, register to vote and learn about the importance of registering.
Then number three, show up and volunteer and be an advocate. Anybody can be a volunteer regardless of your capacity because when you volunteer with any organization you believe in, you will support your community.”
Why Do Some States Continue to Have Election Trouble Every Year?
“Let’s look at a state like Florida that did not want to make it possible for people with felonies to vote until recently. Let’s look at what those communities in Florida typically look like. They are overwhelmingly people of color, immigrant communities, Spanish-speaking folks, and people from Haiti and Cuba.
We need to think of it not in a vacuum but over time. We know that technology makes it easier for many things to be streamlined, particularly our elections. Certain states with specific populations do make it much easier for some people to vote based on their populations. And let’s take it together with just the history of resistance to change.
People do not want to change. The conventional majority, those folks, do not want to see change because they feel that it threatens their power. And we understand that from what we hear from Governor DeSantis now about having elections and voting, the police show up to ostensibly intimidate voters who show up to exercise their fundamental rights. All these things make it more difficult to vote.
Totals mean you do not have a streamlined election administration process. Your clerks, your board of elections, administrators, and supervisors have a way to count accurate vote totals and provide them because you have not provided them the resources they need but added to that. You are not considering the needs of your community, which is diverse, robust, and colorful. You’re not making it easy for them to vote. It’s intentional because we can look at other states with a white majority who can surmount these high hurdles a lot easier than a state like Florida.”
What Ms. Khondoker points out about Florida’s election difficulties is correct since, during the 2020 election cycle, Florida Governor DeSantis and his supporters were able to pass Senate Bill 90 quickly. The bill imposes unnecessary burdens on the right to vote, particularly for Black voters, Latino voters, senior voters, and voters with disabilities, according to Democracy Docket.
How will the Freedom to Vote Act Support Voters?
“The Freedom to Vote Act is one measure to make it easier for people to vote, and it should expand voter registration. It allows for automatic same-day registration and provides a baseline for all states to follow. It also makes voting by mail more accessible, and it limits removing voters from voter roles. It also makes election day a federal holiday. Those are amazing provisions to reduce these high hurdles to the ballot. We hope that states will stop implementing new laws to make it more difficult for people to vote because they will not be able to do that under federal law. The goal here is to make it more achievable for everybody to have equitable, free, and fair access to the ballot without fear.”
Do You Feel That Our Democracy is Truly in Danger?
“Absolutely. We are at a crisis point, but I think we’re also at a point of opportunity. We are at a constitutional and democratic crisis where folks are very concerned, and rightfully so, about the fabric of our democracy. Still, we’re also at a place where we have tremendous opportunities. We have seen activism, protests, and grassroots mobilization efforts turn out voters in numbers we haven’t seen before. In Georgia, turnout among black and brown and immigrant voters over 2020 was historic.
When people vote, they are speaking, and the people have spoken. They said that Biden was their choice. They said that the principles that this administration espouses represent them. And that is what speaks the loudest to me. So aside from the fact that there are these poultry attempts to continue to dismantle our democracy, let’s give credence to understanding that it’s real. Let’s not Gaslight anybody concerned over that because it is real. But along with that reality, there is a tremendous opportunity.”
Standing Up for What You Believe
“What made 2020 remarkable is that people still showed up to fight back against injustice regardless of the conditions. We experienced things like the pandemic and the environmental injustices that continue to plague our world. We also saw people say; you know what? I’m going to walk out of this door. I’m going to carry this sign. I’m going to go to the ballot box. I’m going to show up for what I believe in because that’s the only way to affect change. I can’t wait for the wildfires to stop. I can’t wait for white supremacists to get it through their heads that we belong here. I can’t wait for another moment to pass.
There is no better time to do that than now, regardless of how hard it is to look back at our history, the civil rights movement. During that time, people had to deal with segregation. People had to deal with fire hoses. People had to deal with not being able to work a particular job or sit at a particular counter because of their skin color, and while dealing with that, those people still showed up to the ballot box. They still marched. They still protested. They still worked through systematic violence and racism.
During these unique challenges of our modern-day era, it is incumbent on us to seize on the now; if we take a piece of what John Lewis said, “If not us, then who, if not now, then when?” so it must be now.
Now is when we get up and fight regardless of our challenges. For those of us who are interested in video games, this is about world-building. It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed, lost, or how many lives you have left. You get back in the game regardless of how far that journey is, and you play to win.”
About Aklima Khondoker
Aklima Khondoker is an attorney, advocate, and activist. Ms. Khondoker currently holds the position of Chief Legal Officer at The New Georgia Project, an organization focused on voter registration and advocacy. She has spent most of her legal career making sure others get a fair shot. She has pushed for women’s reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and voting rights.
Ms. Khondoker honed her voting rights skills at the ACLU of Georgia, where she created the Voting Access Project, a program that blends grassroots organizing, policy, and litigation to improve and expand access to the ballot. She later served as the Georgia director of All Voting is Local, a campaign of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. You can find out more about Aklima Khondoker at www.newgeorgiaproject.org.
About the Author
Annmarie Hylton-Schaub, Head Marketing Strategist and Content Developer at Project Good Work, a boutique marketing group focused on helping individuals who want to launch social impact projects, charities, and change-making initiatives. The marketing group works to develop branding, marketing strategy, and content to connect clients with the people who believe what they believe so that their project and business can thrive.
If you have a passion for an unserved community, a social justice problem, or want to change minds, contact Project Good Work at ProjectGood.Work to start your project of change today.