As someone in the rather unique position of being a citizen of four different countries—US, UK, Brazil, and Italy—I have always believed it was both my duty and my privilege to vote in the elections for all four nations. But this year, I have felt like I’ve made a difference in none.
I’ve always been passionate about democracy, but I recently started to fall out of love with it. In Brazil, things looked really hopeful for a while, before the spectacular exposure of rampant government corruption that resulted in the impeachment of the country’s first female president. Meanwhile, my fellow Italians kept electing billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi for successive terms as their prime minister, in spite of the fact that he is a self-obsessed misogynistic buffoon who constantly put his foot in his mouth. (Sound familiar?) Then came the June 2016 referendum in the UK, and the whole Brexit fiasco made it hard to argue with Sir Winston Churchill, who famously quipped, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” And let’s not even mention Trumpgeddon—I’m still wrapping my head around that one.
I remember being so proud and excited to get my first voter’s registration card in Brazil when I was 16. In that country, voting is mandatory for those aged between 18 and 65, but 16 and 17 year olds can opt in, and I just couldn’t wait. Part of that came from the fact it hadn’t been long since the country had been under military dictatorship, and I was aware that people had literally died to earn me that right to vote.
When I moved to England at the age of 19, one of the first things I did was register to vote in UK’s local and general elections. I had adopted this land as my new country, and engaging in the democratic process was an essential part of that, as far as I was concerned. As an Italian citizen, I also periodically got sent absentee ballots to choose my MEPs (Members of the European Parliament).
It was not until this year, however, that I bit the bullet and undertook the lengthy and convoluted process of registering to vote in the US elections. My mother is American, so I have a US passport and Social Security number, but although I visit the US regularly and have family there, I never actually resided in the country. That complicated matters, as you have to register to vote in a particular state, which is supposed to be the last state you lived in. I ended up choosing New York, since that’s where my parents met back in the 1980s. The reason I finally choose to go through all that trouble was because I knew how important this year’s presidential election was, and how tightly contested the vote would be. I wanted to make sure I made as much of a difference as I could (which—in hindsight—means I should have found a way to register in Florida).
The New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki swears by the wisdom of crowds, but I have seen precious little of it in recent elections. In the US, UK, Brazil, and Italy, I watched as people got lied to and listened to politicians making wild promises they couldn’t possibly keep before retracting statements as soon as they were safely installed in office (such as Trump removing references to banning all Muslims from coming into the US off his website today).
But although my millennial generation is very good at complaining about that sort of thing, that discontent never seems to translate into voter turnout come election time. That was most painfully felt with the EU referendum in Britain, where young people were worst hit in terms of how the decision to leave the European Union affected their future prospects, yet they didn’t make their voices heard. That sense of powerlessness also creates apathy among young voters in places like Brazil, where fewer and fewer 16 and 17 year olds choose to register to vote like I did when I was a teenager all those years ago.
In the US, even though we had the highest voter registration in history, approximately 117 million eligible voters chose not to exercise their democratic rights this week, with groups like millennials turning out less for Clinton in 2016 than they did for Obama in 2012. Considering that these young people—who make up the largest voting-age group in the US—overwhelmingly supported Clinton, if their turnout had been higher, and the system been proportionally representative, we would have woken up in an entirely different reality.
There was ample evidence of how broken the system was back in 2000 when George W. Bush got elected over Al Gore, yet nothing changed in spite of the momentous long-term consequences it brought to America and the world. I believe the silver lining of this Trump presidency will be that it will eventually force the country to reevaluate how the values of its people are reflected by its institutions. This might mean that the US finally gets the electoral reform it so badly needs.
One of the things that would help apathetic millennials actually get out the vote would be compulsory voting. In many nations—such as my home country of Brazil, Australia, and Belgium—you must provide a valid reason if you’re unable to do so (as you would for jury duty) or else face sanctions and penalty fines. As a result, turnout in those countries averages 85% compared to between 40-60% in the US. One of the worst things about hearing people rant about the results of Brexit and the US elections being “the will of the people” is that if you factor in those who didn’t vote, you end up with results that are not actually representative of the majority of those very people—it’s no wonder president Obama said that compulsory voting could change the entire political landscape in the country.
I know just how lucky I am to hold so many passports, and I never took for granted the access and privileges that they’ve afforded. As far as I’m concerned, my part of that bargain involves engaging with the democratic process in each of those countries that make up my diverse global citizenship. But it saddens me that those processes don’t seem to be able to reflect the hopes and aspirations of my generation, and we are becoming increasingly disengaged. Unless we can fix that, the democratic process will inevitably fade into irrelevance, as the people most affected by policy don’t feel they have a say in shaping it.