A reflection on the privilege and responsibility of voting, inspired by my friends who cannot

I was very surprised today when two of my Nicaraguan friends casually texted me asking me if I had voted. Not a single foreign friend of mine has ever asked me about a previous US midterm election. I was proud of how far the “Get out the vote!” hype had traveled.

They asked for whom I voted and expressed their awareness that this election was critical in deciding whether Trump would maintain his support in the legislative branch of government. I explained that, while I was thrilled to vote for candidates like Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Governor Gavin Newson, San Mateo County, California, wasn’t the host of any high-profile races, such as the governorships in Florida and Georgia, or the senate seat in Texas.

After a meaningless, typical exchange about Trump, my friend sent a sobering message.

“At least you get to vote. I don’t know what that is. And I think that’s something most people in the US take for granted.”

To be a 28-year old and not know what it’s like to have your vote matter. My heart felt heavy. And I agreed completely with him — many people in the US do take it for granted, something I’ve been proud to see change during this midterm season.

For some context, the prospect of voting in Nicaragua is further away than ever, yet more important than ever. On April 19th, Nicaragua abruptly dove into a socio-political crisis. Over one weekend, the government’s violent response to citizens’ peaceful protest of the mismanagement of social security funds left over 20 dead. Since then, the population at large has been calling for the resignation of the presidential couple, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who essentially function like dictators.

“At least you get to vote. I don’t know what that is. And I think that’s something most people in the US take for granted.” — Claudio

To date, the government has killed over 500 of its people — many of them shot in the street during a peaceful protest and then refused treatment at public hospitals. The resulting economic crisis has left 300,000 jobless and pushed 5% of the population below the poverty line. Additionally, hundreds have been unfairly taken by the government as political prisoners — often for “crimes” such as being a journalist or a university student, waving the Nicaraguan flag, or engaging in freedom of expression (a liberty technically protected by the Nicaraguan constitution).

Credit: El Nuevo Diario

But even prior to the crisis, Nicaragua was a place where the right to vote has been disrespected for a decade and counting. At the hands of the Ortega-Murillo-led FSLN (the political party in power), Nicaragua has seen an erosion of democracy. This, precisely, is central to what the majority of the country is currently fighting for: the reinstatement of democratic processes such as the right to vote — and to have that vote respected.

The author of the sobering text message, my close friend Claudio, recalled his first time voting in municipal elections in 2008, when the FSLN political party “stole” (manipulated) the results in most municipalities across the country.

“The first time I voted, I was so excited… going to choose the mayor of the city, feeling like I had a say…” recalled Claudio, referring to 2008. “But they [the FLSN] stole almost all the municipalities. Like 131 out of 138 or something like that.”

Another friend of mine, Sergio, shared his experience voting in 2008: “There was this huge rumor that the elections were going to be stolen — which actually did end up happening. But we went to vote, anyway, thinking that if there were a lot of us, they wouldn’t be able to steal the election.”

Things were no better several years later, in 2011, when President Daniel Ortega and the FSLN stole the elections, again — a fraudulent election to begin with, given that Ortega was violating the terms of the Nicaraguan constitution by running for the presidency again.

“In 2011, I went to vote with some hope,” Sergio continued, “while knowing that bad things could happen after — and bad things did happen.”

“The second time I voted, I was naïve,” Claudio started, clearly remembering his experience voting in 2011. “I thought, ‘Ok, maybe this time they won’t steal it like the last time. Perhaps if a lot of people vote, it will be too hard for them to steal it.’ That election, people gathered around the park where they were counting votes in order to ‘protect’ the process and to observe and make sure nothing was changed. All of the sudden, we — young people, old people, children — were surrounded by a herd of motorists armed with mortars. They were shooting into the sky just to create fear.”

The Ortega-Murillo regime has since successfully consolidated power — they have control of all branches of the government, the police, and the army, all of this accomplished via corrupt and unconstitutional practices. By the time of the 2016 election, democratic institutions were so eroded and elections had been manipulated so many times that voting was entirely useless.

“I did not go to vote in 2016 because it was just a show for Daniel Ortega,” said Sergio.

Having lived through some brutal parts of the Nicaraguan socio-political crisis puts things in greater perspective for me. Most of all, I am reminded of all the privileges I possess simply by being born in the United States — such as having a US passport and being able to set off to practically wherever I wanted as soon as I felt that my wellbeing was at risk. The obviousness of my privileges even in the midst of difficult circumstances makes me even more committed to the fight for social justice and equality.

I can vote — and my vote matters. As US citizens, our votes matter. Our voices are heard. Yes, voter suppression is a big problem in the US and some Republicans are actively try to roll back parts of the Voting Rights Act. We still have progress to make. We should never, ever lower the bar just because we may have it better than in other places. But I am grateful that our right to vote, for the most part, is respected.

Nothing I am saying is groundbreaking. My friend Claudio inspired me, so I wrote this just as a reminder to all of us to respect our right to vote. Next time you think that your vote doesn’t matter — that it’s just one vote — find some perspective. Maybe it’s the Suffragettes that fought for women’s right to vote almost 100 years ago. Maybe it’s the political prisoners of oppressive regimes around the world, fighting for freedom of expression. Maybe it’s my friend Claudio in Nicaragua, who doesn’t yet know what it’s like to have his vote truly matter.

Voting is so easy for most of us — all we have to do is show up or mail an envelope. Every day, I think about the individuals, lawyers, public servants, and activists, for example, who dedicate themselves to the never-ending fight for social justice and the protection of our civil liberties here in the United States. Because of them, we can lead comfortable lives. The least we can do is show up and vote — and vote informed and with our collective well-being in mind! So keep voting, because it is not only a right — it is a privilege, it is a responsibility.