The problem with freedom is that those who have it either don’t know what they have or choose to ignore it. Kamba people of Kenya say, “Those who live next to water do not necessarily take a bath,” a metaphor that replays in my mind whenever I see the dismal participation in voting in America year after year.
Recently I called the Ada County Office of Elections to confirm the date when they received my registration as a voter, something many would consider trivial or irrelevant. I became a citizen on June 23, 2013. Ten days later, July 3, the office recorded my registration. I had waited for that moment for 27 years. I have participated in every election since, taking advantage of the opportunity to be heard.
The freedom that enables Americans to live where they want, say what they want, associate with whomever and whenever they want, and exercise their freedom to vote, is an illusive dream for millions of people in other countries.
Look at Zimbabwe, a country that has been in the news lately. It became independent in 1980. Robert Mugabe, a dictator, was the first prime minister and then president until November 2017. He destroyed lives and economic structures, relegating the once-shining spot of Africa to desolation.
Kenya, my native country, became independent in 1963 and the recent elections present a clear picture of the high cost of living without freedom. About a week before the Oct. 8, 2017, election, Chris Msando, head of information, communication and technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the main body overseeing the polls, disappeared. Three days later his body was found and pathologists confirmed he had been tortured and murdered.
The election results were reputed to be filled with irregularities and illegalities, a fact that led the Supreme Court to nullify the presidential elections. The president was livid and promised to “fix” the “crooks” in the Supreme Court. The opposition party outlined issues that needed to be addressed to allow for fair and free elections. The government and electoral body didn’t allow that to happen, leaving the opposition with no other option than to withdraw and ask their supporters to boycott the elections.
Several other credible cases were filed to postpone the by-elections to a date later than Oct. 26. Before the by-election, a driver of one of the court’s judges was shot and injured. Then the Supreme Court lacked a quorum — only two of the seven judges were present. In some strongholds of the opposition, violence between police and demonstrators led to cancellation of elections.
The painful price was paid by the dozens killed by police, including a 6-month-old infant.
In America, people can differ in political opinions, but no one’s life is threatened by his or her government. Yet millions don’t vote. Migrants from countries with suppressive governments are shocked, and marvel and wonder if Americans understand or value the freedoms they have.
It is astonishing to hear people trumpeting how they support our military troops (a commendable and noble thing), but if those same people don’t vote, their support is hollow. Thousands and thousands of men and women in military have died or been maimed to earn and preserve that freedom. Women who don’t vote mock the ones who struggled for years just to be allowed to vote. The struggles and lives lost during the civil rights movement are still vivid. Yet groups that were suppressed and denied the opportunity to have their voices heard through voting have too soon forgotten and taken their freedom for granted — thus their dismal participation in election.
There is an immediate solution. Employers need to give employees one or two hours of time off to vote on Election Day. Each time I go to my polling station, I thank God for America. I wear the “I Voted” sticker with pride.
Vincent Kituku is an author, speaker and founder of Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope.