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After watching Obama’s brilliant acceptance speech last night, the guests were poised to go home when they  heard a strange rumbling in the distance.  “Come out here,” they said, and we did.  It sounded kind of like what I would imagine a very distant volcanic eruption might sound like.  It was thunderous, and it was coming from the Diag.  This is what it looked like when we got there:

In moments, friends and strangers ran up to us, exchanged hugs and hollers of “yes we can!”  It became a solidarity greeting for the night — in the street we yelled to one another and high fived drivers of cars that couldn’t budge for the people packed onto the roadway.  Drivers honked and cheered.  The sheer energy of the gathering was self-sustaining.  As time passed more people joined the crowd, and even though some broke off to go their separate ways, it seemed that at every turn more knots of people attached themselves to the crowd.

The happy mob, as I have been calling it all day, made its way all over campus.  There were musicians playing and we paused in the Law Quad to sing the national anthem.  (I can’t wait to see everyone’s pictures — if you have some, post a link to your Flickr stream in the comments and I’ll feature my favorites soon.)  I have never seen so many people have so much energy all together, for such a long period of time.  We joined the crowd around 11:30 and headed home at 2:30, and the happy mob was still wandering through the streets, chanting and playing music.

I think I said it to at least a dozen people and two dozen more said it to me: I’ve never in my young life been proud to be an American, but there we were, singing the national anthem at the top of our lungs, arms over each others’ shoulders and getting all misty-eyed about it.

Last night was for celebrating, today is for a sober look at the next four years.  One of the chants I heard, though, was “yes we did.”  I don’t think we can really say “yes we did,” not now.  We may have elected the first black man President of the United States, but what does that really mean?  It’s a huge step for the visibility of race relations in this country, but there are some major hangups I have with saying that we did already, when clearly we have just taken the first step in a long journey.

  • Black people are still black; the oppressed are still the oppressed. Just because an exception to the rule has broken through the proverbial glass ceiling, it doesn’t take away my status as a minority citizen of the United States.  Don’t get me wrong, I think President-Elect Obama is a step in the right direction, and a huge step at that, but we need to keep in perspective that millions of Americans still suffer racial profiling, discrimination, disenfranchisement, oppression, and invisibility due to their minority social identities.
  • Now is not the time to fuck up. Obama is now faced with the horrifying task of unifying this divided country, getting the economy back on the right track, wrapping up wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the same time keep the voters who wavered in his favor this year happy so we can see another four years (at least) of people who aren’t total assholes in the halls of power.  I think it’s fair to say these clinchers are giving the “liberal” side a chance to prove their ability, which is something that is pretty rare in this day and age.
  • Complete the Court while we still can. The U.S. Supreme Court could really use a Sandra Day O’Connor version 2.0.  I’m just saying.
  • Don’t ignore the internet. The internet put the Democrats in power in a big way.  It’s important to show that this digital revolution in political life in this country isn’t just a flash in the pan.  There is huge potential to harness this power — so long as the government can ensure that it is both free and secure — and see to it that the change that Obama is all about is a lasting one.
  • Voter turnout was ridiculous, but we need to streamline the voting process. See my previous post about long lines being the new poll tax.  Again, change is all well and good, but lasting change is what we really want.

That said, I think last night’s victory for the Obama campaign sends a clear message: yes, we can take care of all these problems.  Yes, we can make a unified America that isn’t afraid of half of its citizens, reclaims its respect abroad and doesn’t leave people disenfranchised and screwed over for health care.  And I have my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that we will.

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It only took me an hour to get through the entire voting process.  Down at my polling place, there was a carnival atmosphere: at least a dozen of my friends were there around when I was there, and we had sparklers and candy and there were high-fives for everyone.  We hung out with the Democratic voter assistance volunteers (one of whom was in all of my philosophy classes last year) and drank coffee and talked about the election.  Spirits are high.  People are counting on this.

But in Ypsilanti Township, people are waiting three or four hours to vote.  In Miami-Dade, people are waiting upwards of five.  It is excruciatingly clear that we are privileged.  Not only did I only have to spend an hour at my polling place, I had the option to hang out and meet other voters.  Economically underpivileged people, especially people who work bit jobs for hourly wages, don’t have that kind of luxury.  Especially when you consider that wait times are considerably longer in underprivileged areas, you can’t help but think — this isn’t an explicit poll tax, but it might as well be.  If I were working 60 hours a week and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t spend three hours waiting to cast my ballot.  If I were making just enough money to make rent and were living on food stamps, I would honestly probably choose making my money over voting.  And even if I had the chance to plan ahead and sock a little extra away for November (some people still can’t do that), my employer might not be so cool with me taking off.  I’m enormously privileged as a college student living in an upper middle-class community that 1) I can take time out of my day to vote and 2) there are plenty of volunteers in my area to staff my polling place.

I am not-so-secretly ashamed of myself for not volunteering in Ypsi Township.

I’m also really excited that people are using the internet to give voting social capital.  While the white oval “I Voted” sticker that is on my messenger bag is pretty cool, it’s nowhere near as exciting to get involved on Facebook.  Logging in this morning, I was presented with a running count of every Facebook member who has voted.  I changed my status to the automated message from the Causes application (I was recruited by a friend, and have recruited two so far).  The sheer numbers — nearly a million people used the Causes application to change their statuses simultaneoulsy at midnight, over 2 million have reported voting already — is something that makes it thrilling, not to mention unifying.

This is cool and everything, but how can we better use social networking tools to galvanize young people?  I kind of wonder how many people would have gotten their hands dirty with this on Facebook if it weren’t such an important election to us?  I hope we immediately start working on ways to motivate people in the future.  Social capital is remarkably valuable, and also remarkably easy to come by on the internet.  So long as you have a critical mass of users who are participating, others start paying attention.

And using online social capital to get out the vote is one thing, but it still doesn’t answer a fundamental question: how do we reenfranchise the disenfranchised?  What about the voters in Ypsi Township, in Detroit, in Miami-Dade County?

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