I became a US citizen May 18, and at the swearing-in-ceremony at a downtown federal building, I was happy to see a perky representative from the New York State Board of Elections.
She promised to register new citizens to vote.
Along with 149 others from 51 countries on that chilly morning, I pledged allegiance to the flag and promised to uphold the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Implicit in the vows, I promised to exercise my franchise.
After I received my citizenship certificate and posed for pictures with my little American flag, I joined the line in the next room to register to vote. I filled out the application, but did not register with a political party.
And then something went horribly wrong.
Last week, when everyone around me was making plans to vote, I realized that I don’t exist on the voter rolls. I didn’t receive a voter guide in the mail. I called the New York Board of Elections, and they had never heard of me. My registration had fallen through the cracks and now I was simply too late.
So I won’t be voting in a federal election — a right that Question 50 in my practice civics test book emphasized as one of the most important rights that is ONLY for US citizens.
I wondered how many other new citizens have found themselves in the same situation.
“We don’t make it easy for people to vote,” my friend, a Manhattan elections lawyer, divulged.
While 12 states have automatic voter registration in which voters get registered when they receive a driver’s license or other state identification, New York does not.
Add that to the fact that New York’s Board of Elections has long been marked by incompetence and patronage, and you may have the explanation as to why New York has one of the country’s lowest voter turnouts in the country. Only 57 percent of eligible people voted in the last presidential election, in 2016. That makes New York the 45th worst in voter participation in the country. In midterm elections in 2014, just 28 percent made the trip to the polls.
I guess it’s a good thing that I don’t live in Brazil or Belgium, where I would be paying a fine for not showing up at the polls.
But I feel like “a runaway citizen,” in the words of the ancient Greeks. In classic Athens, voting was so important that non-voters were rounded up with a rope dipped in red clay and dragged to public assemblies. The red marks on their clothes betrayed them as civic outcasts.
On Tuesday, I’ll be the one in red.
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