I’m an average citizen — not someone who keeps up regularly with current events, tweets about politicians, or fully understands the US debt crisis — so I wonder whether I’m qualified to write an article on civic engagement, partisanship and politics. In high school, I had been immersed in a civic engagement organization called the Junior State of America. Though much of the organization was centered around debates on economic, social, and foreign policy, I didn’t participate in these, opting to get involved with the activism branch, which entailed planning, logistics and community building. It was partly because I didn’t know enough about current events to contribute a meaningful opinion; it was partly because I didn’t care enough to learn. This mindset of feeling both unqualified and indifferent continues to be true. Yet, I vote in every election.
Because I can.
Because others tell me it’s my duty.
Because I tell others it’s their duty, and I can’t be a hypocrite.
Because I do care about immigration, education and climate change.
These were all things I knew but hadn’t articulated before I went to Atlanta this fall to visit my friend, Robin. I knew him from Honors Physics in high school, where he would doze off in class each day, drool hanging from the corners of his mouth, as his right hand still gripped a pencil in writing position. Even back then, the components that made up Robin seemed inconsistent with each other. He was 6’1” and wore thick glasses, black stud earrings, and a jade buddha pendant. He was heavily involved in Theater and Leadership, and certainly seemed to be an extrovert. Yet, he relished his many solo trips to Joshua Tree National Park, where he would spend entire weekends alone in nature, taking photos of the night sky. These multifaceted aspects of Robin have not changed in college, where he is involved in a million clubs, yet spends the majority of his time with his two best friends, his maturity still oscillating between that of a 35-year old working professional and a 12-year old prepubescent boy.
What was noticeably different about Robin this fall, however, was his increased interest in politics. Like me, he had participated in a civic engagement organization (Speech and Debate) in high school, yet had very little awareness of current events. In college, through interactions with more politically active friends and following the news for the first time, he became more involved in political campaigns and started to care about voting rights. In sociology class, he had read the Asian American Achievement Paradox, which discussed how immigration laws and patterns influenced Asian American status in the United States. To Robin, this confirmed that politics were more than simply abstract laws and jargon but have concrete impact on people’s lives.
During the second day of my visit, Robin had set up a voting registration table near the campus’ main dining hall entrance, replete with a tri-fold board with instructions, a sign-up sheet, and a large stack of registration forms. Sitting behind the table, while chowing down chicken, he called out people during the lunch rush to ask if they had registered to vote in Georgia. Robin was working on behalf of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization that aims to defend civil rights issues faced by Asian Americans. As we drove to drop off the forms at their office, he explained how the gubernatorial race in Georgia was fraught with conflicts. The Republican candidate, Brian Kemp, was also the Secretary of State at the time, which meant he controlled the voter rolls. Since he took office in 2010, Kemp had pursued restrictive voter registration and identification laws that purged more than 1.4 million voters from the rolls, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, arguably amounting to voter suppression. These actions, which include “exact match” policies and the closing of polling locations, appeared to affect minorities disproportionately. While I was visiting Robin in October, more than 53,000 voter registration applications had been put on hold by Kemp’s office, with 75% belonging to minorities. This was especially notable as Kemp was running against Stacey Abrams, a candidate who would have been this nation’s first African American female governor.
During the drive, I wondered for the first time if voting rights had become a partisan issue. Partisan issues, it seemed, concerned topics such as welfare, taxes, abortion, immigration, and the like, all of which have a defined leaning towards one side or another based on political party. Each side’s reasoning for their stances ultimately point back to ideals such as justice, freedom and charity, but differ in how these are weighed and applied. Voting on the other hand, or rather restriction of voting, doesn’t seem to be supported by any of ideals. In fact, if the definition of democracy is that the rule of the majority of citizens decides outcomes, then shouldn’t all citizens be encouraged to use their voice so that outcomes can better reflect the majority? What makes something partisan? Is it in the nature of the issue, or is it simply dependent on two parties being split in how they choose to vote? Can partisanship be linked back to American ideals, or is it simply about who has power?
A week later, I interviewed Benjamin Oh, a student on the board of Penn Leads the Vote, an organization aimed to get Penn students registered and out to the polls during elections. As Benjamin shared his perception of voting culture on Penn’s campus, he mentioned a Wharton professor who refused to encourage his students to vote because he didn’t want to “take a political stance” as a faculty member. This again struck me as odd — that the professor considered telling his students to vote as political, especially when many of my humanities professors had been pushing me to vote. But if encouraging his students to vote was a political stance, then wouldn’t not encouraging them to vote also be a political stance? Was it possible to be completely neutral on the issue? Is there such a thing as being nonpartisan on any issue? Or does the devil own the fence?
Throughout U.S. history, who has and doesn’t have the power to vote has always been political. As such, it’s not civic engagement itself, but rather who is allowed to participate that’s politicized. But can a line be drawn between a partisan issue and a power issue? If not, how does one justify differences in power, especially in light of “all men [being] created equal”?
These are questions that I still grapple with today, particularly as someone who feels unqualified talking about politics. Yet perhaps what’s so spectacular about being a citizen is that these are questions I get to ask and consider, and maybe one day, through voting, participation, and hanging out with Robin, will come to understand.
Joyce Xu is a student interested in observing human behavior through the lens of neuroscience and literature, as well as an icebreaker enthusiast.