Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I hoped to have the right to vote one day. But President Mobutu Sese Seko only organized one election during his entire 30 years in office – and not during the time I lived in DRC as an adult. So I voted for the first time in 2012, the first year I was eligible to do so, after becoming a United States citizen in 2011. Since then I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote.
I have lived in the United States for 17 years. During that period of time, I’ve been shocked over and over again by the number of Americans who are eligible to vote – but do not do so. Taking for granted the power to cast a ballot is disheartening to the millions of people around the world who have never shared that right due to the cruel and oppressive regimes under which they live. The elections in the U.S. fascinate African immigrants. We view them as an exquisite embodiment of the democratic system in America. I urge all who can vote to do so – the enormous responsibility of making critical decisions on behalf of citizens should not be thrown away.
Most leaders in Africa rise to power by means of military force, and do not relinquish power voluntarily. Once in power, they have absolute discretion in appointing the rest of their government. In many countries, the choice of these appointees is not based on merit and excellence, but on the personal preference of the leader. The voice of one leader overrides the concerns of the rest of the population.
The last several months in Maine have been marked by campaigning on the part of candidates who are running in the upcoming November 5 election. Candidates and their supporters appear at public forums and knock on people’s doors in order to share their political views, talk about issues that they care about, and explain their plans for solving problems in order to change people’s lives in a positive way. Streets and public places all over Maine have been flooded by campaign posters carrying different messaging that represents candidates’ values and what they stand for. All of these messages are aimed at gaining people’s trust.
The major question that people should ask during the elections season is “Who is the best candidate?” Making a rational decision over the choice of good leaders can be easily overshadowed by heightened emotions and campaign rhetoric and slogans. Many people do not take time to evaluate the candidate’s character and positions on issues, and allow campaign rhetoric and slogans to impact their decision making. Character is essential in a candidate – their selfless attitude, passion and love of the citizenry, ability to assess and understand people’s needs, and problem-solving ability. We need elected officials to find solutions to critical challenges.
The decisions elected officials make impact people’s lives in important ways. Recent examples in Maine include a governor who made it possible for asylum seekers to receive General Assistance, after a previous governor had taken that assistance away. Other examples are Portland’s decision to expand pre-K offerings this school year, and the state’s decision to require all districts to offer pre-K by the 2023-2024 school year. These decisions show why we should take care in casting our ballots.
Because many immigrants grew up under an oppressive regime and may have experienced rioting or violence and persecution in connection with elections back home, they may experience some anxiety during election season in Maine. They should rest assured that the elections will be peaceful here, and participation is safe.
It is very encouraging to see nine candidates from the immigrant community running for elected office on school boards and city councils in Maine. This is a clear sign that immigrants want to embrace democracy and play an important role in the decision-making system of the state.
Leaders have the ability and potential to save or destroy our society. It is our duty to engage these leaders as they weigh decisions – and also to vote for who we believe are the best ones.