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Election Day from the Perspective of Someone Who Can't Vote

Commentary: Since I'm new to the US from Ireland, it's the first time in my adult life that I can't cast my ballot. It's simultaneously liberating and frustrating.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
5 min read
US Capitol at dusk, with traffic zipping by.

I can't vote on who gets to go to the US Capitol, but there are other ways to get involved.

Getty Images

There's a visceral thrill and power in voting, and for the past 17 years I never missed an opportunity to cast my ballot back home in Ireland. Having moved to the United States earlier this year (hopefully for good), I find myself in a political no-man's-land as the November midterm elections loom -- I can't vote until I become a US citizen.

It's disconcerting, being unable to make my voice heard in a new country whose politics I've followed closely my entire life. I knew it'd be like this before I came, but the feeling of powerlessness is more frustrating than I expected.

Citizen Now
CNET

Not being able to vote also feels like the perfect excuse to disengage from politics completely as news alerts assault my phone and computer ahead of the midterms. But the same sense of social responsibility that got me to vote in Ireland year after year keeps tugging at my brain, so I'm eager to engage.

But how? 

The view from abroad

Growing up in Ireland in the '90s gave me a skewed view of US politics, heavily weighted in the Democrats' favor. Despite the intense media focus on former President Bill Clinton's infidelities, the Democrat-led America of that time played a vital role in bringing Northern Ireland's Troubles to an end. That helped foster romanticized notions about America in my preteen brain.

My perception of American politics became less romantic under the next decade's Republican government, led by President George W. Bush (being a cynical teenager probably didn't help). The US military used Irish airports as a stop on their way to Iraq, making the neutral Ireland seem like an accomplice in the controversial War on Terror that followed 9/11.

Protesters march with a "US military out of Shannon" message on a flag in Ireland.

The US military's use of Irish airports resulted in protests in the aughts.

Julien Behal/Getty Images

I only started thinking about the mechanics of US politics early in my career as a journalist, when I realized just how vital the press was in holding elected officials accountable. With the 2012 presidential election approaching, I was determined to develop as balanced a perspective as possible. It was during this period of intense curiosity I read Irish journalist Terry Prone's 2011 column. In it, she quoted a New York Times column by economist Paul Krugman, who eschewed "the cult of 'balance,'" the media's "insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts."

At the time, I remember feeling like any attempt at adopting a balanced perspective was hopelessly naive. (Prone didn't respond to my recent request for comment about that column.)

I don't remember much about the policy elements of the election, but the memeification that followed -- Clint Eastwood's empty chair, Mitt Romney's binders full of women, Joe Biden's bunch of malarkey -- is seared into my memory.

All that feels downright quaint compared with the drama of 2016 and trauma of 2020. The last six years of US politics have left me -- and I'm sure many others -- so jaded it's easy to forget that much of this is pageantry designed to deflect our attention from reality: Like many jobs, the day-to-day work of politics can be pretty boring and is well within our power to grasp if we don't get caught up in the theatricality. 

The game and reality

Too many people are obsessed with the game of politics -- the endless posturing and overblown scandals -- presumably due to decades of watching well-groomed people in suits sneering about the other side on obscenely partisan cable TV networks. Aren't they just advertising their personal brand or promoting their latest book, though? 

The proliferation of social media influencers only seems to have made this worse, especially since they feel the need to lean in to every hot topic -- politics, pop culture, sports, whatever -- to keep their name trending and their audience focused on them. It all feels horrendously narcissistic, and pulls us further and further into rage bubbles and away from reality.

NYPD officers speak to the homeless near a bag-laden trolley

This is a depressingly common sight in some parts of New York City, and the solution is unclear.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

Strolling around the streets of New York City (my new home) these last few months, surrounded by a sea of humanity in a place of extreme wealth and poverty, has felt like a powerful dose of reality. It's easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour, but it's also absolutely gut-wrenching to witness people who have nothing.

I recently asked myself why I look away from the homeless. Their situation seems like a nightmare, and glancing at them for more than a moment feels like facing a problem with infinite possible causes that lacks any obvious solution. It makes me feel helpless, even more so because I can't vote for decent, fair-minded candidates presenting reasonable improvements.

Political openness

So what can I, and other people in my situation, do to stay politically aware and engaged even if we're "outsiders" who can't vote? We live in the US now, and we care about the direction of this country. 

For the moment, as I get acclimated to life in the US, the simplest way to remain engaged is through thoughtful conversation with my partner, friends and acquaintances, and trying to focus on the practical issues we can imagine solutions to rather than delighting in the latest trending Twitter nonsense, mocking politicians for minor slips of the tongue or drummed-up controversies that'll fade in a week.

Getting into intensely debated topics like abortion and gun control too often leads to discussion of party allegiances and generalities about the dichotomies they may represent. My friends and I can respectfully listen to one another and work from there by assessing local politicians' stances and characters. I might be able to influence the voters who can cast a ballot, and understanding their ballot choices will gradually shape my sense of topics' political nuances.

US voting literature is stacked on a table

I'd better learn all the fascinating facts about the US Constitution. 

Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

Outside the realm of conversation, there are other ways I can make a difference in the short term as a non-voter when it comes to issues that matter to me, such as homelessness. I gave away piles of books, clothes and other possessions to local charities before moving here, so I know how eager many such organizations are for help, how easy they make it to donate and the little endorphin rush such giving creates.

The less-inspiring work will come in powering through the mountains of free political literature I've previously only scanned -- having the patience to sit and read feels like a superpower sometimes -- in the hopes of grounding myself in the reality of politics rather than the theatricality. Ultimately, I want to view every political issue impacting my new country through the lens of compassion and trusted sources.

Being new to the US presents an opportunity to cast off my old assumptions and engage with politics in a more reasoned way. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be ready by the time I can actually vote again. 

Citizen Later, if you will.