For many immigrants the ability to vote is a personal symbol that they’ve “made it” and been accepted in their new home, or are considered to be a responsible member of society, capable of making decisions about the social direction of the country, county, state, and/or city they’ve chosen to call home. But what exactly does the right to vote signify? Are voting rights truly a symbol of responsibility, or just an arbitrary designation?
Here in Ireland there’s an important referendum coming up on marriage equality. But, because we are not yet citizens, my wife and I cannot vote. While I do feel a bit cheated by not being able to help friends obtain their rights to something that, in my mind, shouldn’t even be up for debate, I understand why I’m not allowed to vote.
To me, it makes sense that voting rights not be handed out like frozen pizza tasters. Until someone proves that they’ve made a genuine commitment to a place they should not be allowed to influence the bureaucratic direction, or moral compass of that place. But, how long is long enough, and what constitutes “proof” of commitment?
In Ireland I can apply for citizenship after five years of continuous residence. But, I have to ask, why 60 months? Why not 80, or 120? Should property ownership be the benchmark for local commitment? If we go that route, then only the wealthiest of immigrants will be entitled to vote. Good luck ensuring a fair wage and working conditions.
I’m happy that in a little over a year I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship, and will be able to start participating in the system, but I’m not sure I’m worthy. I talk a good game about wanting to stay. But, I can envision situations where I might leave. I don’t want to leave Ireland, but older family members may need us, or economic conditions may necessitate relocation.
By contrast I can’t envision practical circumstances under which I’d renounce my citizenship and voting rights in the U.S. But, believe me when I tell you, that’s not due to my unwavering patriotism. It’s purely practical, and out of lifelong participation in shaping the direction of the U.S.
Next to that where does my five years in Ireland fit? At this point I’m torn. I really love this place and want to commit to it in the way that seems most meaningful – by voting and fully participating in the system. But I’m not sure that 5 years is enough.
The hoops one must jump through, and adapting to a new system (or systems) of elections and voter registration, are yet more things added to the immigrant’s list of social adjustments. But, in a strange twist of circumstances, these may be both the most important and the most arbitrary items on that list.
As with so many things, the voting rights conundrum is one for which I have no answer. I continue to struggle with what is “right”, and whether or not I’ll be worthy when the time comes for me to step into the polling booth.
Dublin, May 2015
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Water Rights (Yeah, right)
Finding the “Right” City For You