By Perla Martinez, JONAH Communications and WISDOM RVP Organizer
Working with WISDOM and JONAH with IVE (Integrated Voter Engagement) & RVP (Relational Voter Program) I have learned that a lot of people have lost hope in our voting process. Our democracy feels like a joke. Many are not being informed on how it operates. There are a select few who are making all of the decisions on how we live because the government isn’t being transparent or encouraging input in the democratic process. We do not all have equal opportunity to learn about our democracy. Our background and the people we surround ourselves with also influence our engagement, understanding, and opportunity.
I have recognized that not everyone knows how to register to vote, how to find their polling place, how to look up candidates, or how to vote (via absentee, mail-in or in-person). Most importantly I have learned that not everyone has easy access to any of this information. Yet, the most frustrating part is that some of those who do have the knowledge or access to it, do not help share it and participate in that process. Some people would do anything for the opportunity to vote while others have that privilege and don’t use it or talk about it.
It is unbelievable how much we take voting for granted in our country. So many people have fought for the right to vote. People have died fighting for the right to vote, to make a movement. Now that most of us are born with that right, we treat it like a forgotten book on the shelf; we know the knowledge it contains is important but we continue to leave it there, unread, hoping that someone else will pick it up and read it.
I believe that our culture and our background influence our everyday lives; how we act in everyday situations. In my personal experience growing up as a Hispanic woman, a natural born-citizen, living in the United States as, none of my family members cared for the US Elections because none of my immediate family members can vote. I grew up learning about the different presidents, how our country came to be, and in high school we had one citizenship class. Yet, I do not remember learning how to register to vote, how to look up candidates, or how to have a knowledgeable opinion when it came to voting. All I remember from that class is that I failed the citizenship test they gave us to practice. In that moment I did not realize what that meant. All I thought was that at least I was born here so I didn’t have to worry about that. Consequently I did not care about any election that I could have participated in. I could have voted in many elections and I chose not to. Was it due to ignorance, carelessness, my upbringing, my age, or my values at the time?
I turned 18 in March of 2014 and the first election I participated in was in November of 2018, the Wisconsin election for governor. Even though I had not voted in the previous years, the way I thought of voting was black and white. My takeaway from my Catholic upbringing was that sin was unacceptable, and I assumed that not voting was a sin. I voted based on the views of the church – against anything sinful. I did not ask myself what my personal beliefs were about certain things. I have come to believe this voting without self-reflection is absurd. This realization also made me reflect on how other people cast their votes. I think we are brought up to believe that there is only one right way to vote – either party A or party B and often just vote without too much thought. Or maybe we feel we have no choice. Or sometimes we vote only thinking of ourselves instead of what’s right for everyone – about how to work together for the betterment of everyone, not just a select group of people.
Working with the Hispanic Community in Eau Claire and Barron County I realize that there are many people who still think the way I used to – voting without thought or not voting at all. Regardless of their point of view, it doesn’t help that they, personally, aren’t able to have a voice and state their opinion like most of us can. They also fail to realize that even if they can’t personally participate in our elections, they can still have an influence on those who do have the right and the choice to vote. I think many Hispanics choose not to vote because of negligence, because they find it difficult to have a voice, and because they feel like they don’t have an option. Growing up, my parents always told me to work hard, go to college, and get a better education so I can have a better future, but they never once told me to be involved in our democracy as a constituent. I think many people focus on bettering their lives individually, (which is not a bad thing), but it gives us tunnel vision. We only focus on certain things and miss that there are people who are deciding the rest of our lives for us, whether we agree or disagree. Our elected officials like to dangle “opportunities” in our faces, like stimulus checks and momentary child tax credits but never a permanent solution for everyone.
I used to think that the Mexican and American Government were different, but they really aren’t. They are more similar than different. With my husband being in Mexico currently, I have learned a bit of how the municipalities work there. For example, Town A is where my husband’s family lives and Town B is a town about 15 miles away. The constituents of Town A do not work together, the road to get to Town A is only partially paved and when it rains, the roads get closed because of how muddy they get. So, they complain to the municipality, and instead of using the money they are given to fix the roads, they use the money and give it to constituents as an apology for their inconvenience. They give out these very small payouts, so they do not have to spend more money on fixing the road and their constituents are happy because they’re given money they didn’t have before. Town B, on the other hand, is more knowledgeable. So, when they didn’t have a paved road, all of the constituents, and I mean all of them, got together and went to the municipality and demanded a paved road. Can you guess what they got? They got a very nice paved road. From then on whenever Town B wants something fixed or made, like a soccer stadium, they get it because they all get together, close down the road and town if the municipality doesn’t give them the budget for their proposed ideas.
This makes me think of how much we could accomplish if we all worked together. If we all helped influence our friends and neighbors to get out and vote. To demand what we want to happen and make it happen.
For many of us voting rights are given to us when we are born in this country, but there are still many who do not have it that easily. If you are living here undocumented, voting never crosses your mind because you do not have the opportunity to vote, even if you do have the knowledge. If you are living here as a permanent resident, you have to remain a law-abiding permanent resident for at least 5 years before you can even apply to become a citizen. Can you imagine how long it must have taken to become a permanent resident (anywhere from 6 months to a lifetime) then to wait another 5 years to become a citizen, to gain your voting rights? Imagine then having to pass a 3-part examination, not in your natural language (when America doesn’t even have an official language). You have to learn everything about that country, its language, and pass the exam, and still your existence in that country is unwanted and made less of no matter your knowledge and effort to be a part of that country. On top of all of this legalization process, you still have to educate yourself, provide for you and your family, and remain sane so that your children can have a better life.
I believe our elected officials make it harder and harder for their residents to have voting rights because they are afraid of the power we have, because once we learn how to use it, we will be more powerful than all of them combined. We all have many obstacles in our lives that prevent us from voting, whether its knowledge, access, or opportunity but we have to ask ourselves why? Why do fewer and fewer people vote? What can we do to encourage our fellow neighbors to have the right to vote? Why are so many people being jailed and kept away from society? Why do people have to take a Citizenship test to have the access to vote while others just have to be born here? Have you ever wondered what other country’s processes are for them to gain voting rights?
It is important to engage more voters to exercise this right for everyone’s benefit. So many people have fought, for a long time, for the right to vote and we are taking the opportunity to have our voice heard for granted. We do not even realize the damage we are doing to ourselves and our country. Whether we are eligible to vote or not, I believe we can make a difference in our future. What can we do to make a better world for everyone? Reflective, informed voting IS a powerful tool for change, if we all use it the way it is intended.