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About eight days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Cobán, Guatemala, when the reality set in.
My absentee ballot for the midterm elections had not come. Something in the system had gotten screwed up. I called the North Carolina voting office and they confirmed: my registration had gotten lost.
“You can show up in North Carolina on election day,” the woman on the line told me, “or you can not vote.”
Nearly 3,000 miles away, I buried my face in my hands, distraught. I cried for a few minutes. Then I whipped open my computer and began plotting to do just that — to change all my plans and reservations and show up in my home town just four days later.
In order to do so, there was a lot to be done.
I needed to cancel the final days of my stay in Coban, cancel my bus transport and housing at my planned next stop, book transportation the 6 hours back to Guatemala City, book housing there for a night, book a flight back home, and book a flight to return to Flores after the election to pick up where I took off.
From there, my timeline to make it to the next major airport before Christmas would be crunched and likely tweaked.
It was inconvenient. But isn’t it always?
There will always be reasons not to vote — competing factions of work and time and travel and life that always seems to get in the way.
The test of democracy is to do so anyway; to make time; to expend energy; to take busses and walk and drive and fly; to get there. To vote in spite of the obstacles. To vote in spite of the context.
North Carolina, unlike Minnesota, the state I previously resided in, wasn’t a swing state heading into this election. There was no governor’s race and the only congressional race in my district was a pretty much a shoe-in for the democratic incumbent. And as my mother reminded me, I was awfully far away, and going through a whole lot of trouble to vote, essentially, for some low-level local politicians.
I could pass it off as a missed opportunity; I could look at the predictions and assume my individual vote doesn’t much matter.
But I believe the test of free will is continuing to care; not just about the the tight races and the big stakes and the presidencies — but every candidate, every election, every level. That’s why, after changing my official address to NC after 15 years in other states, I spent many hours poring over the records and views of every candidate on the ballot. I wanted to know exactly who I was voting for and what they were about.
You see, there’s a lot happening in Washington these days that I’m pretty frustrated with and exhausted by, to put it lightly. I’m concerned about the leadership of our immediate future and who might be waiting on deck.
But if I’m not invested in every step of the way, I lose my right to complain about the status quo.
If we don’t vote for our local offices, then we can’t complain about our senators and representatives. If we don’t vote for our senators and representatives, we can’t complain about our presidents. Our presidents paths begin somewhere. And if we want to garner effective candidates for our countries top positions, we can start by supporting them at ground zero.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that my passport and my birthright carry privilege. Unlike many in the world, I’m fortunate to have a say in the direction of my nation. It’s a powerful thing; a right I hope to never take for granted.
So on Sunday morning, I rumbled in a van around mountainous curves, six hours to Guatemala City, and the next morning, I boarded my first of two planes to bring me back to Raleigh, NC, around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Seven hours later, I was at the polls, fulfilling my civic duty — albeit with a provisional ballot, the result of so much getting mixed up.
Afterward, I slapped the sticker on my t-shirt. I worked hard for it, sure.
But in that moment, it felt more like a gift.