Curtain Raiser

In Praise of New Americans, Colltalers

Among the many variables to decide the U.S. presidential elections – likely party crossover, Republican gerrymandering, changes in the Democratic base – two could deliver the White House in dramatic fashion: the immigrant vote, and an unexpected surge in overall turnout.
Given its candidate’s rhetoric on immigration, the GOP has reasons to worry about, say, more voting Latinos. But that’ll depend on legal residents becoming eligible in time to vote. As for turnout, it’s been a great puzzle, and an unfortunate handicap for American politics.
Speaking of puzzles, why undecided voters are given such a king maker role in the U.S. electoral proceedings? After almost two years, how can anyone justify being so utterly oblivious to the presidential campaign? Specially considering that both candidates have been such public figures in American life for way over this time, and even people who don’t speak English know very well who they’ll vote for.
To give this kind of deference to a contingent of the population with such staggeringly minimal awareness of what’s going on with their own nation speaks volumes about politics in America, circa 2016, and also may help to explain why so many stay at home on election day.
Of 325 million Americans, 215 million are eligible to vote. Only 153 million, though, have registered to do so, and even less are expected to show up at the voting booth. So much for a presidential contest that may be the most diverse in U.S. history, according to analysts.
On a global scale, considering eligibility percentages and a universe of only 35 nations, the U.S. sits comfortably, probably on a couch with some chips and a cold beer in hand, at the 27th position. And this is a country that loves to lecture the world on the wonders of democracy.
Despite get-out-to-vote campaigns,

sponsored by the government, parties, and specially independent and demographically-focused organizations, failure to show up at the polls on election day runs across the board and involves all segments of the population.
Many factors can be attributed as causes for this dysfunctional aspect of U.S. democracy, from efforts to disenfranchise race and class minorities to gerrymandering to artificial barriers designed to undermine the power of voters. But arguably the most unbelievable among them all may be the massive amount of money thrown into the contest, a large part of it dedicated to prevent people from voting.
For there have been many proposals to increase turnout, such as moving election day to weekends, allowing voting via Internet or social networks, simpler rules, and extended voting periods, even turning the vote obligatory, so to ease this crucial exercise of citizenry rights.
But against them stand powerful interests that directly benefited from lower turnout, helped by the now infamous Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. With that in place, it’s no wonder that, at every election cycle, voters face a bulkier set of draconian voting rules.
There’s more: in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by half a million votes, but lost the presidency to George W. Bush, a new, disturbing aspect of the U.S. electoral process was exposed: the outcome of the election was settled – with flagrant congressional omission and against the will of the majority – by decision of a clearly partisan-driven, ideologically-vulnerable Supreme Court.
16 years later, a convoluted, and still uncompleted, transition to a ‘smart’ system offers yet a full new range of opportunities for hacking and interference that may impact results. The alarming possibility was recently brought home when Democratic Party files were allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence officials. If that threshold has been indeed violated, it’s downright scary to imagine what may come next.
But these are external circumstances, no pun intended, that constantly conspire to the fairness of the electoral process. The single most important factor undermining the outcome of an election is voter awareness. And that requires a whole set of conditions to be addressed, not the least of them, education, public involvement, and political will, among others. Regrettably, we’re far from even the starting point of this issue.
And then there’s the immigrant vote. As it usually happens during presidential election cycles, a record number of legal residents have applied for naturalization. But this has triggered an extensive backlog, groups promoting citizenship workshops say, and applicants are slowly waking up to the prospect of not being able to vote at all in this election, a major reason for them to apply in the first place.
Using their customary hyperbole, the media calls this the most polarized presidential campaign in U.S. history. And indeed, one may be fooled by the copious amounts of (fact-free, often biased, auto-centered and irrelevant) coverage into thinking Americans are mobilized.
Don’t fall for that. Or for the apparent implosion of the Trump campaign. Or the illusion that Clinton will be coronated three weeks from now. Despite all the rage and almost daily controversies, fabricated or not, the average U.S.-born citizen remains unmoved. Or undecided.
It’s exactly the people to whom the system seems to be stacked against – young blacks, undocumented and legal, tax-paying immigrants, and a still small share of social activists – who’re engaged the most on the issues that may turn November a ground zero for social equality.
Curiously, they can also teach us a thing or two about being pro-active in defense of democratic principles, confidence in people’s ability to build something positive together, and being generally upbeat about the future. There’s no reason to doubt or remain undecided over this.
History sides with those whose fight for inclusion is coincident with principles of equality and tolerance. Let the unwise root for a land of walls and fictional glory, while we build a nation of opportunities to grow together. And tell your neighbors they’re awesome. WC

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