Is this really how America chooses its president?

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By Naina Rao
MI First Election

It can get overwhelming to be a first-time voter in America this year with the extensive media coverage on a first-time-politician, Donald Trump, and the debate on realism vs. revolution between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This is especially so with mindsets that believe the U.S. needs to build borders to prevent Mexicans from immigrating, or that college can be free, but not really outlining how that’s possible. As a 2-year-old resident of America and observer of its politics the past few months have been confusing. And some of my peers, who are actually citizens and who will have to vote, are lost.

I’m currently an International student from Jakarta, Indonesia, a unitary state with a constitutional republic government. It has its similarities with the United States such as freedom of speech and freedom or religion but, it also has its differences – laws, regulations, branches of governments, and the voting system.

I needed to research the way voting and electing a president works here. As a non-citizen, yet a student in college surrounded by motivated, young people, American politics has been contagious. However, these terms such as “Absentee Ballot,” “primaries” and “checks and balances” are so foreign – particularly for new citizens and first-time voters, if they haven’t been exposed to the political arena.

So I decided to do my research with some students who have never voted. Meredith Herman, a third-year student at Michigan State, shared some of her struggles balancing school work and politics, as well as the confusion about voting.

Herman said it’s quite difficult for students to get involved in elections when there’s so much pressure for them to finish their degree and make something out of themselves. Time management can be stressful, too. But the beauty of being in college is that you’re surrounded by people who can help you learn about the process: professors, political science majors, and many more.

So that’s what I did. I went out in search of students who are in the politics to learn the process of voting and elections in America. Aaron Martinez, a third-year student studying political theory and constitutional democracy, explained the first steps of voting for the first time.

Martinez said Michigan does not have an automatic voter registration so, a first-time voter would need to manually register. This is done by going to your city clerk’s office or online – where you can print out the form and mail it to your clerk’s office. The benefits of being in college during election year are student organizations dedicated to inform students and help with voter registration.

But what happens if you’re not able to vote on that particular day? A lot of us might have appointments planned way before, three exams to complete that day, or spring break might fall on the same week as it did for Michigan State’s 2016 spring break.

Colin Jackson, a senior at MSU studying social relations and policy and a former campaign manager, explains the usage of absentee ballots in situations like these and how it works for first-time voters.

Jackson shares the process of obtaining absentee ballots when you’re a first-time voter and the fact that you have to be present to vote, in person, the first time. There are exceptions to this law allowing you to obtain an absentee ballot even if you’ve never voted before, but generally, you would basically have to be present to vote.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you might need to affiliate with one of the parties to vote in its caucuses or primaries.

Professor Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz, who is an assistant professor in the department of political science, illustrates the procedure with some context, as well as where our votes actually go and end up.

The history of parties present in United States can assist first-time voters to narrow their choices. Conroy-Krutz said the rules, though complicated, are a better way to organize the presence of the two parties and practicing freedom of rights through it. It is almost necessary to have these procedures so the various perspectives are celebrated. “And this is, what I’ve noticed, why we have such a lower voter turnout among the youth. It can overwhelm an individual,” said Conroy-Krutz. With the introduction of Electoral colleges that he mentioned – is where your votes go. Basically, there are a group of electors that are selected to represent and confirm the state’s overall choice of candidate.

So, another question that comes to my mind is about the atmosphere on voting day. How would one go about voting once they’ve reached their voting site?

Election worker Julia Christensen said, “We try to make voting as straight-forward as possible, but the reality is that there are a lot of safeguards in place to make sure that people are who they say they are, that they’re voting in the right place, and that they can only vote once. It’s a way of ensuring the trustworthiness and sanctity of the voting process”. She helps people vote and answers questions on voting day. “In Michigan, the polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. For an election worker, this means that the day starts around 6 to set up. The busiest parts of the day in most precincts are around 7:30 a.m., the lunch hour, and between about 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. (people on their way home from work).”

“When a voter comes into the precinct, there will be several tables with election workers at them. Each table is a different ‘step’ that you go through in order and then get your ballot to actually cast your vote.”

And on election day, you must go to the correct precinct. “Your voting location is determined by the address listed on your voter registration,” Christensen said. “At the precinct, first, you will be asked for your picture ID, and asked to fill out a little slip of paper with your name and current address. This is called an ‘application to vote’ and it will follow you until you’ve submitted your ballot, like a little passport. If you don’t have a picture ID, you can sign the back of the application to vote and you’ll still be allowed to vote. Then, you’ll take your little slip of paper and your ID to the next table/election worker who will check that you’re in the correct place to vote. In East Lansing, this person will have a laptop with a special program on it, elsewhere they may just have a big binder full of lists. This is how we make sure you’re in the right precinct. If you are, the election worker(s) at this table will give you a ballot inside of a ‘privacy sleeve’ and you can go over to the voting booths to cast your vote. Keep your ballot inside the sleeve when you’re not in the voting booth because technically you aren’t allowed to show anyone your ballot, especially not once it’s marked,” she said.

There are also machines called ‘AutoMarks’ to assist citizens with disabilities. This is required by law, however, “they are notoriously unreliable,” said Christensen. You can bring someone, typically a family member, with you, including a minor child who is ineligible to vote on their own, to help you vote. Just don’t bring someone from your job or a union as it is assumed that these are people who may have a stake in pressuring you to vote a certain way. Election workers can also help, and a voter is not required to disclose why they are in need of assistance. The rule is that two election workers – one from each major party – must both be there to help to ensure that your vote isn’t affected in any way,” said Christensen.

Wrapping my head around all of these regulations, systems and policies can get so overwhelming. This easily discourages people, especially new voters. But political science Ph.D. student Jamil Scott describes why each vote matters and why people should never let it discourage them.

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