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A Foreigner's Perspective on the US Elections

(Published October 2008, The Spirit newspaper, Philadelphia and in The Daily News, Op-Ed, Nov. 3, 2008)

April 26, 1994 was a crisp fall day, one that I will never forget. All over South Africa, the country of my birth, millions of people stood in line from before sun up, to cast their vote in the country's first ever non-racial, democratic elections. The lines of people in many rural areas measured several miles, and newspapers reported of people, many of them elderly, patiently waiting for up to six hours in the sun to cast their vote. The headlines in the daily newspaper (which I have kept for posterity) proclaimed: "One long line to freedom." The atmosphere across the country was euphoric - after decades of repression, segregation and the denial of the most basic human rights to the vast majority of South Africans, freedom had arrived.

Of course I, as part of the white South African minority, had never been denied the right to vote. On the basis of my skin color alone, I had been a member of the privileged class while my 35 million black fellow citizens (and any other people deemed "non-white") had been forced to live under the indignities of the Apartheid system. Prior to South Africa's first democratic elections, I had never bothered to cast my vote - after all what kind of absurd joke was an election that excluded the vast majority of the electorate? Growing up privileged in a country where I was surrounded by glaring racial inequalities always filled me with guilt, anger and a horrible feeling of helplessness.

And so it was, when Apartheid finally crumbled in the early 1990's, that I took my place in line amongst my fellow South Africans of all color, to finally participate in a real democratic election. Beside me in the line was Christina, the beloved black nanny who had lived with my family for over 25 years. At age 58, she would cast her first ever vote. She would finally get a say in the running of a country where she and her ancestors had lived for centuries, long before white, Dutch settlers had set foot on the southern African continent. For Christina and for me, the vote meant a lot more than just electing the party and president of our choice - it signaled the death knell of inequality, and a new future for both of our descendants.

Today I find myself living in the United States, and ironically perhaps, denied of my right to vote in the upcoming Presidential elections. My status in this country is that of a "resident alien" which sounds more like some creature out of some Star Trek episode, than that of someone who has legally lived in the country for three years. Not being able to vote in a country where I now feel at home, and having to remain silent over election issues that I would passionately like to express in my ballot, is made all the more frustrating when I know that America has among the lowest voter turnout of any democracy in the world. In the 2000 Presidential elections - a measly 51% of voter age Americans cast their vote.

Have Americans forgotten their past? Have you forgotten that it was only in 1920 that American women were given the right to vote after Congress took 42 years to adopt an amendment proposed in 1878 that granted women the vote? Have minority Americans forgotten that despite the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1869 guaranteeing the right to vote for all men, most minority men in the southern states were deprived of their voting rights by the Jim Crow law until President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 protecting blacks and minorities from any other state-supported obstacles to the vote.

It is difficult for me to understand voter apathy in America, especially when there are so many important issues facing this country. Americans need to appreciate their freedoms and the quality of their lives. Perhaps we immigrants who have lived in countries where freedoms are not taken for granted, and who regard the vote as a sacred privilege should be granted the right to vote. This is not such an outlandish idea either. In 1848, the state of Wisconsin granted voting rights to aliens if they'd resided in the state for one year and declared their intent to become citizens. This precedent was later adopted in other liberal states. By such reasoning, I would have the right to vote, and you can be damn sure I'd exercise it too!