Personalizing The Vote

Originally published in the Yale Herald

The perilous state of democracy in America is nothing new. But beyond crushing partisan gridlock and the stunning impact of money in politics has emerged a subtler threat to the bedrock of the American political process: representative democracy is seriously endangered by chronic public under-engagement with political systems. Commitment to democratic principles mandates systems that empower as many Americans as possible to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Immediate innovations in our voting processes will be necessary to revive and sustain our democratic system of government.

This Tuesday, individuals who waited in unreasonably long lines to register and vote in the midterm election overwhelmed an understaffed New Haven City Hall. Voters stood in line for up to three hours while hardworking staffers verified IDs and rang other towns to verify that new registrants had not already cast a ballot elsewhere. While voter fraud fears were assuaged by City Hall’s diligence, the long wait discouraged some voters from ultimately casting ballots. Particularly frustrated were individuals who had mailed in voter registration forms weeks earlier, only to discover at the polls that their forms had not been properly processed. They were sent to join the City Hall circus.

Many unregistered voters soon calculated that hours in line was too high a price and left without voting. To top it all off, state laws mandated that the office turn away anyone who had not registered by 8 p.m., including some individuals who had waited in line for up to two hours. About 100 dejected voters streamed out of City Hall, some still clutching their completed registration forms. Though the crowd was diverse, one particular frustration ran electrified through the crowd of students, working professionals, and retirees—the experience had not been very user-friendly.

The great revolution of consumer capitalism is user-centered design. User-focused and user-friendly systems proliferate rapidly, redefining the new normal. While this attitude adjustment is probably most drastic among a younger generation of certain means, it will surely reach others in a society in which companies expect to compete for user satisfaction by racing to offer user-friendly services. From automatic bill payments to custom TV-viewing experiences, non-user-friendly experiences can expect to be left behind.

The paradigm shift to User-As-King seems likely to accelerate as the generation of iThis and iThat matures politically, and future generations grow up knowing no alternative. The strengthening baseline assumption of user-friendliness and growing impatience or intolerance of processes that aren’t quick and easy do not bode well for representative democracy. Responding to this pressure, many are quick to call for the iVote.

I consider the iVote to be anything that makes voting more user-friendly. In the world of quick and easy, three aspects of traditional voting are sure to be less and less palatable to the user-friendly generation: the necessary pre-Election Day preparation, the effort of filling out physical registration paperwork, and the actual time it takes to vote. To be sure, each issue has received varying amounts of attention from dedicated volunteers and city departments, among others, but the reach of their local efforts is unlikely to effect widespread change, and their good work may be fast outstripped by changing attitudes.

Considering the burden of completing and mailing registration paperwork, it seems curious that we have arrived in 2014 with Bluetooth, the iPhone, and Google Glass, but without a comprehensive system of online voter registration in every state. While the incentives clearly encourage innovators toward work that results in financial reward and other intangible forms of fulfillment, it is hard to believe that the technology and brainpower does not exist in the world today to erect a system that would allow voters to register at least partially from the comfort of their own homes. If concerns about verifying voters’ identities truly cannot be addressed by an existing measure (though skeptics might be inspired by fingerprint matching technology that unlocks many smartphones), there may be a way to complete the bulk of the voter registration process beforehand and complete the verification process in person on Election Day by bringing the necessary identifying documents. Such a step, while certainly not without logistical challenges, could dramatically reduce the burden of registering new voters.

Notoriously long lines at polls impose high costs that voters may be less and less willing to bear. In addition to taking aggressive steps to bolster existing infrastructure, anticipating complications at the polls, and establishing more polling locations wherever possible, expanding early voting could relieve the congestion that deters many voters and imposes unreasonable costs on those who do stay to vote. Already, 33 states allow some form of early voting, but these initiatives ought to be expanded and proactively promulgated among those populations who are most likely to benefit from the opportunity.

Expanding early voting does not necessarily mean extensively lengthening the period during which one can cast an early ballot. Some caution that extensive early voting encourages individuals to vote prematurely, but anyone who argues that point must concede that in no world will all voters be perfectly informed or in touch up until the moment they cast their ballots. Voters have and always will employ heuristics, no matter when they vote. In expanding early voting, policy-makers must weigh the risks of premature voting against the virtue of expanding voting opportunities to unduly burdened populations, who would then be the subjects of concerted efforts to publicize the details of early voting.

A final burden on traditional voting lies outside the 11 states that allow Election Day Registration, with the foresight it requires. Registering to vote weeks before an election may be less and less compatible with the user-friendly generation’s attention deficit aided by media overstimulation and other forces. Today, we can make a last minute reservation, order dinner to be delivered on a whim, spontaneously purchase a flight across the country with earned miles, call a ride across town with a few swipes, and so much more. With world time racing faster than ever, we are less conditioned to plan in advance for certain kinds of events. Overstimulation means constant prioritizing. With all the other burdens on traditional voting, registering to vote may soon fall further down the list.

This same overstimulation and hyper-connectedness brings a host of new possibilities for social change and mobilization, but it must be managed carefully if it is not only to remain conducive to, but also actively enrich representative democracy. The eventual ubiquity of social media alone presents an enormous opportunity to diffuse positive social norms that may fade as we transition from strong ties/small networks to weaker ties/large networks. Facebook reminded all of its users to vote in the midterm elections this past Tuesday and allowed users to share this activity with friends. Social media’s weak networks may be perfectly suited to dissipate a culture of civic engagement, creating its own rewards for voting. From publicly sharing one’s own voting habits to spreading celebrity efforts to “Get Out The Vote,” the preferred tools of the user-friendly generation are not necessarily hostile to the democratic project, and may in fact inject it with renewed vigor.

American-style democracy is still the envy of much of the world. Our commitment to the democratic process is a fundamental element of our national character. A great many brave men and women sacrificed a great deal to secure for us all the privilege of voting. Our duty is to proactively and intelligently adapt our systems in order to keep our representative democracy alive and well. Coretta Scott King reminds us, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” It’s up to us to win it again.

Go and Come: An Afropolitan’s Journey Home

Originally published in Ayiba Magazine

We arrived in Akpafu by late morning, having left Tema at half past five. According to my father, his hometown is only three hours from Accra. That’s a lie. It’s easily a five-hour journey. My mother laughs as she explains that he simply doesn’t like to admit just how remote his village really is. I had brought my laptop along to catch up on things and I was feeling something like guilt about it. The feeling sharpened in the last hour of the journey as the roads muddied and the voices singing from the car stereo turned slowly to fuzz. Leaving behind the din of the urban jungles, women with babies clinging to their backs peddling fried and baked treats, drivers who regard traffic signs and lights as suggestions, we ventured into the village.

It was on these muddied roads that I began to sense just how much it could mean to the people of a village like Akpafu when one of their sons or daughters succeeds in the wide world. How it can touch, warm, and sustain an aging grandmother or inject spirit and hope to a raucous young man. These muttered rumors of distant success ran electrified through and along the road to Akpafu, charging every metre.

My father’s sisters Auntie Roberta and Auntie Aku met us at the gate with open arms and a warm smile. “Folose-ori,” she said, welcoming us in a language I didn’t understand. I smiled, hugged her, and responded (more because it felt like the right thing to say than because I truly meant it about this sliver of Ghana that took five hours to reach and brought me something like guilt), “It’s so good to be home.”

Auntie Robbie lived down the street from the house in which my paternal grandparents had lived. The first item on our itinerary (the itinerary obsession runs in the family, you see) was to visit this home, which had recently been renovated. Auntie Judith, my father’s eldest sister and the Queen Mother of Akpafu was our willing guide. I waffled over whether to bring my iPhone to capture the scene, feeling sensitive to the incongruousness of the device in this space. A pen and paper was surely a more accurate lens than a photo I would snap and then struggle to fit a filter over. I brought both in the end, and felt my iPhone grow heavy in my purse.

As we entered the home, I realized I couldn’t remember my grandmother’s name. I’m not sure I’d ever really known. I felt (something like) shame as I raised my query. “Grandma Julie,” they answered.

Grandma Julie. What a beautiful name. I moved slowly down the hallway, chewing over the name, examining it like a new friend. Auntie Judith took my mother to admire the new finishes in the living room, indicating who had inhabited each room. I heard nothing past the second room on the left, Grandma Julie’s room. They moved on, and my feet led me into her room, curious and hesitant.

The room was completely empty, sporting a brand new floor, a fresh coat of paint on the walls, and hanging golden curtains that whispered in the gentle cross-breeze. Even though we had never met, I thought I’d walk into the middle of the room, close my eyes, breathe in deeply, and open something somewhere so that I could feel her, my Grandma Julie. I stood there, breathing, with my mind empty and at peace, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Any minute now.

… Nothing. My eyes flipped open. I couldn’t feel her. She wasn’t here. Or if she was, she wasn’t minding me. And in a flash, something like panic began to set in. “Grandma Julie?” I called gently for her in my mind. Was that rude? To call for a Grandmother as though she should come to me? Surely I should go to her? Of course. I should go to her. And so I set off. I looked behind the whispering curtains, in between the blue patterned diamonds on the newly tiled floor, and behind the door of dark wood with the new doorknob. She was nowhere to be found. So I returned to the center of the room, deflated.

And there it was – there she was – very faint, but definitely there. I could feel her, a light pressure, compelling and comforting. But it was too light, too faint. I wanted more – to feel her securely, wholly, beyond a shadow of a doubt. She was wandering, still faded and warm, and I followed her to the wall, pressing my forehead against the crinkled, cream-colored paint. She lingered there for a moment and I smiled, feeling certain that she would greet me now, welcoming and embrace me, and I could begin to know her. But she retreated, floating not into the next room where I might have followed, but beyond the pale walls into another dimension where I could not go. I willed her not to go, feeling my pulse quicken. My breaths came in harsh and shallow as I pressed my palms against the wall, turning my head so my cheek lay flat, desperate to feel as much as I could of the grandmother I had never known.

And then, she was gone. I dropped my arms as tears sprang to my eyes and a crease appeared in my forehead, carried there by flashes of regret, anger, mourning. I shed tears for the woman I would never know, for the stories she’d never tell me, for the love we’d never share. I cried for her pain and pleasure at her dissipating descendants, flowing ever further away from home into the wide world, returning rarely or never to Akpafu, Where It All Began. I cried to wash away any gunk that might cling to me, keeping her from recognizing me in the future.

The tears slowed, my breathing quieted, and I lifted my hand to the wall one last time to say goodbye to Grandma Julie. In Ewe, the language my parents speak at home, when someone is taking their leave, you bid them goodbye by saying gbכ kaba, or, go and come. It doesn’t necessarily matter if they won’t be back for a while, you can still say to them, go and come. My fingers grazed the wall as I turned to leave, and I swore I could hear Grandma Julie whisper from the curtains and beyond, gbכ kaba.