Last weekend, my mom voted for the first time in America.
It wasn’t the first time she’s voted. In her home country, she was an occasional, infrequent voter, she says. Elections didn’t really matter, though, because the nation was under martial law.
My mom moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. Soon afterward, her home country became a democracy, and direct elections became the norm. But she was here in America, ineligible to vote here, and very far away to be able to vote there.
It’s been over 30 years since she moved to America. Most of these 30-something years were about raising her kids—my four sisters and me. She drove us to school and to piano lessons, cooked our dinners, did our laundry. She became a naturalized citizen, and her passport changed to match ours. She watched the news with us after 9/11, but current events and American politics were never on her mind. She had other things to worry about, things like: is there enough money to pay the bills this month? does Lydia have the gym shoes she needs? why is the minivan making that noise?
A lot has changed since those days. Today, her five adult children live in five different cities across America, from Boston to San Francisco, and her responsibilities are few. She and my dad moved to a new state in early March, right before the pandemic lockdowns took hold.
“Your grandmother thinks you are terrible daughters,” my mom said to me recently. “‘She asked me, ‘Why haven’t the kids visited you? Don’t they want to see your new house?’ And I had to explain again that 200,000 people have died here, and that it’s not safe for you to visit.”
Early in the pandemic, I listened over the phone as my mom described settling into a new neighborhood during a global health crisis. “We waved at our new neighbors across the street. They were also out walking, but we didn’t get close enough to say hello.”
She completed dozens of jigsaw puzzles this summer, sometimes two at a time, thousands of brightly colored pieces scattered across her dining room table. She and my dad watched the president’s daily news briefings together. “They’re pointless, but we’re bored, so we watch,” she said.
Despite my mom’s limited English, she comprehended enough of what was said in those daily news briefings. Our nation’s leaders’ bungled response to the pandemic were a stark contrast to what she read in online news reports from her home country, where a quick and decisive plan of action subdued the virus leaving only 7 deaths in its wake. In the news briefings my mom watched from home in isolation, the president’s tone and rhetoric were clear.
Soon after she started watching them, she told me she carried a cane to the grocery store to make her appear older, weaker than she actually is. I laughed. Then she explained, “I’m hoping people would hesitate before beating up an old woman.” I stopped laughing.
“Your grandfather reads the news stories about hate crimes against Asians in America,” she told me over FaceTime. “Did you see that another man was beat up in California? Your grandfather always calls immediately to ask if you girls are okay. I tell him, ‘Don’t worry, they aren’t leaving the house much, so they’re safe.’”
A few weeks ago, I broached the subject. “Do you want to vote this year? It’s very important.”
“Isn’t everything important these days?” She sighed. She was spooked a few days earlier by the orange skies of San Francisco in images shared by my sister in the family group text.
This past weekend, my youngest sister texted me.
woah mom voted !! , her and dad are mailing in absentee ballots today/tomorrow
i literally was just thinking ab this a couple days ago bc i didn’t even know if she was registered and like how to convince her to vote
but she’s voting !!
Yeah! You may be thinking to yourself. Go democracy!
The story of a woman seizing her democratic birthright attained later in life, driven to vote by the travesty of current national leadership and its penchant for reckless xenophobic, racist rhetoric, is not exactly a feel-good story. Her vote is an act of self-defense and a common sense reaction to gross incompetence and moral bankruptcy at the highest and loudest levels of American government. Nonetheless, it contains elements we gravitate toward in stories we like: a brave heroine rising up against powerful but hapless oppressors.
The headline reads:
Immigrant Housewife Casts First Vote, Civic Duty Fulfilled
It’s just too bad things had to get this bad for her to find her voice. But she did!
But this isn’t quite what happened.
This is the story we want to hear. Most of us share a common political worldview that tells us—
- Current leadership: bad
- Voting: good
- Voting out current leadership: very good
And it’s easy and gratifying to apply this lens to my mom’s story.
The reality is: she voted this year because she could.
My sister’s string of text messages continued:
but she said since everyone’s getting a mail in ballot she did it , she just never wanted to go into the polls , and i told her she could get every ballot mailed to her if she wanted
Imagine for a moment: what would it be like for you to walk into a new place to take part in a complicated process you’ve never encountered before in a language you neither speak nor read?
If there’s a line at the polling place, you know to stand in line and copy the actions of the person before you, until you’re told you can’t follow them anymore. Voting instructions are printed in English or left unspoken. In the vast majority of jurisdictions across the United States, ballots are available only in English. *
But even if ballots were printed in my mom’s language, would there be a kind poll worker who would patiently talk her through the process? But more importantly, would my proud, independent mom be willing to let somebody help her? Would you?
This year, for the first time, the prohibitive hurdle of going to a polling place was removed for my mom. She received her absentee ballot at home, unprompted, without having to submit an application for it. Because she filled it out at home, she could do so slowly and carefully, looking up words and asking for assistance as needed.
There wasn’t some grand victory in my mom’s decision to vote this year. It wasn’t an emotional triumph of democracy in the life of a woman who grew up under martial law.
She voted because she received a ballot in the mail, and she filled it out.
The narratives we impose on the circumstances we observe reflect our biases. The story told in the mock headline above isn’t a story about my mom. It’s a story about us. It’s our story, a story we crafted and told ourselves. We want these to be her reasons for voting because they reinforce and align with our worldview.
Sometimes, our focus on the story we expect to find causes us to miss the story that actually exists. Sometimes, the story we want to hear isn’t the story we need to hear, or that we were meant to hear. Sometimes, the real story is way less complicated than our extrapolations.
Most of the the time, we won’t realize we are imposing our own narratives onto the stories of others. Our biases color our perceptions; they also prevent us from seeing ourselves.
And so, UUCC, I invite you to join me in asking ourselves:
What lessons and stories might we have missed or misunderstood because of our limited, filtered perspectives?
How can we learn to hear the stories of others, rather than our own?
What kind of world can we build together if we learn to truly receive each others’ stories?
* In 1975, Congress enacted a set of Language Minority Provisions as part of the Voting Rights Act. A bilingual ballot is deemed necessary when a jurisdiction has: 1) a single-language group that is over 10,000 residents or is more than 5% of the voting-age population and 2) an illiteracy rate that is higher than the national average.
Today, these provisions cover only 263 jurisdictions across the country—263 out of over 10,000 election jurisdictions! These jurisdictions represent around 3.3% of the counties and towns counted by the Census Bureau.
In Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties offer Spanish language ballots. Twenty-seven counties in the United States are required to offer Asian language ballots. Eighteen counties offer ballots in my mother’s language, but she’s never lived in those places.
We’re familiar with the common tactics of systematic voter suppression: gerrymandering, felony disenfranchisement, purging the rolls, polling place closures, exact match requirements, voter ID laws, rejecting absentee ballots over trivial discrepancies in how signatures appear, and so forth.
I would add to this list the lack of will and awareness to expand language access at the polls. These days, 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and that number is sure to increase after this year’s Census (if Census results accurately reflect our communities). I suspect a significant portion of that demographic encounters language barriers in their day-to-day, rendering difficult things like dentist appointments, parent-teacher conferences, and essential democratic practices like voting.