by Georges Budagu Makoko

Election Day is fast approaching in the United States, and despite the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastation suffered by so many due to the deaths of over 200,000 people due to the virus, the stakes in this election are high, and I urge all eligible voters to make sure you vote.

In January of this year, when the first case of the virus was identified in the United States, no one was sure how the U.S. would be impacted. Nine months later, we know that the nation has been one of the most seriously affected countries in the world. Our next leaders will be dealing with this unparalleled situation, and with the process of developing and distributing the vaccines which will hopefully control the virus, as well as start the long process of rebuilding the nation’s social and economic infrastructure, which is in tatters. The equitable and efficient distribution of the vaccine will be partially determined by decisions and guidance from different levels of government, so the outcome of the election will matter on a deeply personal level to us all.

All eligible voters must make sure that their voices are heard. Citizens have a civic obligation to vote for the candidates they believe are best equipped with the knowledge and experience we need in such a critical time. Choosing leaders who can help us fix the damages caused by this pandemic is very important. Also important is to consider the platforms of candidates in relation to immigration, systemic racism, and basic human rights such as access to education, health care, housing, and fair treatment under the law. In order to learn what candidates believe, it is important to follow reliable news sources.

Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I had never voted. When I moved to the U.S in 2002 and witnessed the democratic election process, I was fascinated. I became an American citizen in 2012, and one year later, when I was 39 years old, I cast my first vote in an election. Since then, I have never missed participating in any election. My story is no different from the stories of many immigrants from Africa and elsewhere. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are approximately 50,000 foreign-born Mainers. Of these, there is a statewide total of 25,120 eligible immigrant voters. This is a big enough number to sway an entire election. I encourage all eligible voters in Maine to participate by registering to vote, and then casting a ballot. Many people are voting by absentee ballot this year, which means requesting a ballot early, and sending it in early. Ballots must be returned by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day, November 3, in order to be counted. For those who just became U.S citizens, please start now to make sure you are registered.

Eight first-and second-generation immigrants currently hold city council and school board seats in Maine. This is unprecedented. The number shows there has been a political awakening within the immigrant community, and a recognition that in order for fair policies and laws to be crafted that represent the interest of immigrants, they need to sit at decision-making tables. Most of the New Mainer officials were elected just last year, in 2019. Seven were born in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria, Somalia, South Korea, and Thailand, and came to the United States as immigrants. The eighth was born in the United States to Egyptian immigrant parents. Four New Mainer candidates are on the ballot this year. One is South Portland City Councilor Deqa Dhalac, who is running for a second term. In addition, Yusuf Muse Yusuf and Nyalat Biliew are both running for the At-Large school board seat in Portland, and Dina Yacoubagha is running for City Council in Bangor.

In every election season, I’m always reminded of the amount of freedom we have in the U.S. in comparison to that of so many people who live under oppressive and tyrannical regimes. Millions of people around the world will never live to make their voices heard through the democratic process. Immigrants here in the U.S. should not take for granted the right to vote for their leaders. Many of us know what it feels like to live under oppressive regimes without any control over government, or any chance of changing leaders. The stakes are high in this year’s elections, and we must all vote as if our lives depend on it.