On June 8th at 22 years old, I cast my vote for the very first time. My voice abruptly shifted from that of one lost in a crowd to one bound by law, counted equally among others in my community – a deep pencilled cross marked in a printed box, an opinion that demanded to be heard.
In the polling booth I’d shut my eyes and tried to remember all it had taken to reach where I’d arrived. Thoughts lingered less on the stacks of forms completed and signatures practiced, of photobooth photographs taken with my tongue pressed firmly against the palate to strengthen a soft jawline, of trains boarded with good intentions of arriving on time to biometrics scans and interviews, and two grand missing from my pocket; but instead more so on the seventeen years preceding that moment I had spent feeling powerless. As an American citizen raised in the United Kingdom, I had never experienced the privilege of democracy first hand.
Though I have been a political person since I was a teenager (more annoyingly so in my early days) and have always encouraged those around me to utilise their ballot, I felt a sharper, newfound pang of frustration in that moment toward those who had told me they were choosing not to vote in this general election. Their abstention came not as an act of disobedience, or resulting from a strong dislike of all parties, but rather a lack of interest toward the entire democratic system. They simply didn’t care.
And I get it – I am young, and inexperienced; I have not lived through as much political turmoil as others, I have yet to feel the absolute betrayal of a politician going against everything they promised when I cast my vote in their favour. I have heard time and time again they are all the same, nothing will change, and that the system is flawed – which it is. Even now, I am already bitter, and angry, and know full well there will always be a struggle against the status quo as long as there are humans on earth. Yet what I fail to understand is the choice to not engage as a result of these feelings. To possess no desire to demand more, expect better, incite change, or work as part of an active opposition in any capacity.
Not everybody can be a political force. We are not all campaigners, picketers, or rioters. Many of us may not even have particularly strong views either way. But to drop the smallest, simplest, and most powerful shred of democratic freedom is to suggest that those before you who fought tooth and nail for your right did it for nothing. In this last election, 31.3% of those eligible did not vote; and to feel such political indifference is to choose complete apathy and neglect for society at large. It is more than not caring about human rights violations, an economic crisis, or an unequal, unjust society – it is choosing, simply, to not participate. To be herded toward the wolves, to lie down and take it, as though the world were entirely outside of your control. I just cannot wrap my head around it.
I stood there in that moment and turned to the polling clerk to say, ‘Why is it we use pencil instead of pen?’. She replied, ‘You know – you’re not the first to ask’.