Commentary: I just voted for the first time

A few days ago, I voted for the first time in my life. I recognize that may not be something to be particularly proud about. I’m in my mid-30s, after all, and have spent the entirety of a 15-year career in journalism so far obsessing over global politics, the rise and fall of governments and the workings of democracies near and far. Yet at no point had I cast a ballot in any national or local election.

This wasn’t out of a high-minded – or, some would say, misguided – sense of journalistic objectivity. I simply never had the chance before.

Though born in Singapore and raised in the United States from the age of six, I retained Indian citizenship many years longer than I needed to while an American permanent resident. India doesn’t allow dual citizenship. As I grew older, my navy blue passport with the ancient lions of Ashoka on its cover became one of the few tangible links to a homeland where I had never truly lived and whose languages I still struggle to speak. It was a badge of identity I was loath to relinquish, no matter the perpetual torment of having to apply for visas to travel virtually anywhere else in the world.

India also doesn’t allow absentee voting. Every five years, you see headlines in the international press about the grand spectacle of India’s general elections, the raucous pageantry and almost fathomless scale of the world’s largest democracy in action. But there’s no mechanism for the country’s huge diaspora abroad to head to consulates and get their voices heard, too.

In 2009, my father, an Indian novelist and career United Nations civil servant, returned to India and won a parliamentary seat in elections – which he’s kept, so far twice, in subsequent votes. Regular readers of Today’s WorldView now may understand why I don’t write directly on Indian domestic politics. But that hardly hastened my entry into democratic life. On the contrary, I spent the past decade at a distance in the United States, the country in the world I know best and which I consider my real home.

I knew it was time to become a naturalized American when Theresa May called me – or people like me – out. The former British prime minister may be forever associated with her tragicomic, Sisyphean ordeal with Brexit, but it was a bit of Tory political posturing in 2016 that will always stick in my mind.

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” she declared at a Conservative party conference. “You don’t understand what citizenship means.”

May was trying to play populist, scoffing at supposed jet-setting elites who care more about power-brokers in metropolises elsewhere than their own countrymen. It’s a tired and disingenuous trope, but it seemed to echo a clear shift in the zeitgeist.

A lifetime of cosmopolitan privilege – and the very Indian experience of having family in three different continents – had nurtured within me a genuine conviction that I was, or could be, a “global citizen.” But, now, the liberalism and pluralism underlying that sense of comfort in the world was slipping. Here, instead, were the motte-and-bailey dreams of Brexit, the blood and soil nationalism of soon-to-be President Donald Trump and the majoritarian rage scorching through Indian democracy.

After some more inertia on my part and elongated processing schedules on the Trump administration’s part, I had my naturalization ceremony in Washington this March. I was flanked by new Americans from dozens of different countries. The presiding judge and speakers, most of whom were also naturalized citizens, spoke of bonds of solidarity and civic duty, of America’s injustices and imperfection and yet its constant potential to realize its promise. It was a powerful rite of modern patriotism.

That imperfection, though, is all the more on show now. Just days after my naturalization ceremony, the District of Columbia and much of the United States saw the first wave of pandemic-era social distancing restrictions and shutdowns. My new American passport sits pristine and unstamped, a constant reminder of the doors that have been shut, rather than opened, since I became a U.S. citizen.

Weeks of summer protests and months of deepening polarization brought the country to what seems an existential tipping point on the eve of the election. With relentless demagoguery, Trump has already called into question the legitimacy of a vote that could sweep him out of power. Lawyers on both sides are readying for a thicket of last-minute challenges. The International Crisis Group, which usually monitors conflicts in far more troubled parts of the world, took the unprecedented step of issuing a warning about the possibility of U.S. election-related violence.

The chaos and anger of the moment has caught the world’s attention. Onlookers abroad now pity the U.S.’s arcane electoral practices and unique systems for voter suppression. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Monday his concerns about alleged irregularities in Tanzania’s election last week, his message drew thousands of reactions from people amused by the inescapable irony of such lecturing now.

Patrick Gathara, a Kenyan commentator and cartoonist, tweeted a lengthy satire of how the United States could be viewed from afar. “African envoys have called for Americans to maintain peace during the elections and to be prepared [to] accept the outcome of the vote,” he wrote, parodying Western foreign correspondents in Africa. “In a joint statement, the diplomats condemned recent incidents of incitement, violence and intimidation directed at opposition supporters.”

The prospect of such havoc is worryingly real and no laughing matter. But, at least when I went to vote Friday, things did not feel so grim. The early voting center in my corner of Washington was efficient, well-organized, staffed with kind and helpful volunteers and poll workers. With a great degree of sheepishness, I confessed to the woman registering me that I had never done this before. Handing back my I.D., she looked up, smiled and shouted out, “First time voter!” Everyone in the room clapped and cheered.

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