Last week, I had the unique opportunity to experience the feeling of disenfranchisement.
As the United Kingdom voted on the ‘Brexit’ referendum, I was constantly checking to see if any new exit polls had been released, until I found out that it’s illegal in the UK to broadcast polling data before the elections finish. I then made recourse to texting my friend who lives in the UK, reminding her to vote (she hadn’t really forgotten) and making suggestions about which way she should vote (she had already made up her mind before I texted her). Let me tell you, nothing is quite as frustrating as feeling that you have a stake in something and not being able to take action on it.
Let me explain.
I have every right to be concerned about the Brexit referendum. This fall, I’m going to be moving to Edinburgh to study there. Almost immediately after the results of the vote were released, the people of Scotland (the country within the UK of which Edinburgh is the capital) started calling for another vote. Every voting district in Scotland elected to remain in the European Union, and the second vote would have not one, but two different items on it: to separate from the UK, and to rejoin the EU. While I’m sure the people of Scotland will hold peaceful votes, it’s a bit concerning to be walking into a situation that has explosive potential, especially as an expat.
Furthermore, the results of the Brexit referendum will have effects all across Europe. I’m not a political scientist, and I don’t follow politics too closely, but it doesn’t take a PhD to realize that Germans aren’t happy with taking the brunt of the Eurozone problems, that Italians aren’t happy with some of the production restrictions placed on them by the EU, and that Poles aren’t happy about the idea of people leaving and consequently weakening the EU while they feel threatened militarily from the east. I chose these three countries as examples because I have people in all three, and they will be directly affected if the European Union loses its credibility as, well, a union.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this vote for me, as someone with a stake in this vote and who couldn’t vote, was that the people of Britain didn’t seem to take it seriously. One of my English friends worded it best when she told me that British people still think like they’re an empire. By the way this vote went, it’s clear that she was right; the British people clearly thought they’d be okay no matter which way the vote went, just like they were always okay and in power when the British Empire existed. The problem is that the British Empire no longer exists, and the people at large are still banking on that clout.
I know one English person who voted to leave the EU because her boyfriend thought it was a good idea. Never mind that she’s an ESL teacher living on the European continent, and that if the UK leaves the EU she probably won’t be able to do that work anymore due to visa regulations and requirements that are going to go into place if the UK leaves. And yes, she planned on continuing to teach in Europe in the future.
The day after the vote, news stories came out that showed that after the polls closed British people were googling questions such as “What happens if we leave the EU?” and, my personal favorite, “What is the EU?” I know lots of people who had a face-palm type of reaction to this. Let us explore why. First and foremost: How can you vote on an issue if you don’t even know what the issue is? It’s the blind leading the blind and, in this case, taking the seeing down with them. Secondly: Why were they searching these things after the vote? Democracy can only stand with an educated populace. That’s why democratic countries had systems of public education, so that the people can read a ballot. It should be a matter of course that voters use their literacy to do some research on issues they’re voting on. Common sense says that voters should do that before they cast a vote.
The last thing (that I’ll mention) that irked me about this vote was the number of people who talked to newspapers and said that they had voted to leave the EU even though they didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea because they ‘thought it was a protest vote.’ What the heck is a protest vote? I have lived in a democratic republic for more than twenty years, lived through six presidential elections, voted in soon to be two presidential elections, and taken AP United States Government, and I have never heard of a protest vote. Elections are not set up so that people can protest. They take time, energy, and resources on an astronomical scale, and that’s why they only happen on the national level every few years. When the government puts on an election, it’s because it’s important and a decision needs to be made, not so that the people can screw around with it. Think about it: When volunteers or computers are counting ballots, do they have the time or the shits to give to sit there and wonder, “Hmm, why did this person vote this way?” or “I wonder what they meant by writing in ‘Batman’ on the candidate line?” Casting a vote only makes your voice heard within a certain scope – in the case of the Brexit referendum, within the scope of ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If you want to actually make your opinions known, use your right to peaceful assembly (Americans, this is granted to you by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution), get a parade permit, draw up some signs on poster boards, and march on the seat of government. Don’t abuse the vote.
Again, I’m not a politician or a political scientist. Nor do I intend this invective against the people of the UK who actually did put in the time, did the research, weighed the pros and cons, and voted to leave because they actually thought that was the right thing to do. I have the utmost respect for people who vote their conscience, whether I agree with their decision or not. That being said, I think more people should do their research before going into an election. I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here, and hopefully tripping over the rabbit hole will keep us from falling headlong into it.
That lesson is simple, and it’s this: Do your research. Cast your vote. Vote your conscience. Don’t go into an election blind (Americans, we have a big one coming up in November). Know what the issues are and which candidate or piece of legislation will address those issues. Vote the way you honest to God think is best. If you’re eligible to vote, but aren’t registered, register before November. If you’re an expat, request an absentee ballot. And, for the love of all things American, don’t use your vote as a half-assed attempt at a protest.
For anyone looking to register to vote, find information here: https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote
For any expats who need to request an absentee ballot, find information here: https://www.fvap.gov/citizen-voter