Is being uninformed worse than not voting?
Thick, yellow folds of the paper accordion bounce in the space between my hands as I shuffle through a list of semi-familiar names and even less familiar positions.
“So if there’s only one candidate, do I just check the box?”
I voted in the local elections for the first time in the fall. When I received the absentee ballot in my on-campus mailbox, I clutched it with subtle excitement, knowing I would finally have the chance to voice my opinion through my vote. But within minutes of opening the envelope and scanning over the pages of electoral jargon and instructions to “Refer to Section E.11 of Article 1 for more information,” my eagerness began to fade and apathy loomed overhead.
After 20 years of living in a small town imbued with small town politics, I could not wait to exercise my right to vote, to check a box and believe I could contribute to a shift in the discourse toward progressive change. Yet the moment I put my pen in hand, I questioned whether I was even ready to make my mark.
It wasn’t just because I didn’t know half the names listed on the ballot or the majority of positions the candidates were campaigning for. It was a feeling of incompetency that spurred my nerves and made me second-guess the whole concept of voting. I couldn’t help judging the candidates based on their names — Bonnie used to look after me when I was in daycare; I love Mimi; That’s Amanda’s Dad — or their party lines — I’m a Democrat, so I guess I’ll vote for this person.
With the 2012 presidential election just months away, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show spoofs are racking up YouTube views, and the Republican frenzy is saturating our daily conversations. I thought I would escape all this while studying abroad in Morocco, but I was gravely mistaken. Here, I am asked for my personal opinion on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism or my thoughts about the Left’s shift toward the Right as Obama’s healthcare plan is nearly identical to what the Republicans proposed in the 1990s.
While many young Moroccans are deeply engaged with American politics, they are as equally disinterested with the party politics of their own country. But it’s not because they are uninformed. In fact, many youth actually follow the political discourse and could tell you which party made what statements about topical issues or what the King said in his last conference. They just know that their voices won’t be heard.
Upon coming to Morocco, I was shocked to learn from Sam Werberg, the Deputy Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, that only one million (five percent) out of the 20 million voters brought the “majority” party, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, to power in November. These figures reflect the deep-rooted corruption in the country’s political system. While power sharing abounds in a parliament comprised of 35 different political parties, the Constitution protects the ultimate authority of the King. According to Saloua Zerhouni, a political scientist and professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the King’s arbiter status enables him to not only rule, but also govern in times of dispute. In most cases, the King appoints members of his royal circle of loyalists to special committees when parliament can’t come to consensus.
Oftentimes, these committees have more influence than the political parties.
Despite new reforms to Morocco’s Constitution, which include an emphasis on gender equality and greater efforts to encourage the political, economic and social participation of all citizens, the King’s intervention weakens the power of political parties and discourages their autonomous and participatory governance. Zerhouni said even having local candidates who run on behalf of their community, as well as a quota system that integrates more women and youth into the parliament, these individuals become powerless once voted into office because they are often influenced or co-opted by the regime.
Because the internal political game prevents a true realization of the constitutional promise of equal, political participation among Moroccan citizens, many are discouraged from participating in the country’s allegedly free elections. A group of youth echoed this claim during a discussion at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning, my academic building in Rabat. Their lack of confidence in the system keeps them unmotivated to change it. As a result, they choose to throw away their votes because once they cast their ballots, true representation is unlikely.
The more conversations I had with young Moroccans about why they didn’t participate in the free elections or embrace the new Constitution’s call for equal participation in all spheres of life, the more I began to realize that there is no guarantee that their voices will be heard. My neo-orientalist thought process — the one critiquing my Western attitudes toward the Islamic world — neglected to acknowledge that maybe corruption wasn’t the only force turning youth away from political participation.
Even the youth who are politically engaged and sounding their cries for a true democracy through protests of the February 20 movement have had their voices faded to a rumble and lost their effectiveness. Each Wednesday, shoppers finish up their evening errands by weaving among the demonstrators marching toward parliament and glancing indifferently at the crowd of police clad in riot gear waiting to push away the protesters.
My immersion in this society and exposure to Morocco’s political dynamics has made me re-examine my ability to ask about the motives for political participation of the people living in another country. I have failed to even ask the same questions of people living in my own country.
Why don’t more people vote in the U.S.? Why didn’t my friends vote in our local elections? Why was I the only one among kids my age excited that the candidate I voted for won?
It’s not just Moroccan youth who are disinterested in their country’s politics. And it’s not just my American friends either.
The problem is not that I am disengaged — I follow political news outlets on Twitter, I’ve “Liked” political parties on Facebook, I subscribe to policy think tank newsletters and I voted in the most recent local elections. The problem is that I have grown desensitized to the political debate. Each time a tweet flashes an #Obama hashtag or brands the last name of a Republican candidate I scroll past it, and each time an email from some political outlet pings in my inbox, I delete it. Many of us like to think we’re politically engaged, but how much time do we actually take away from resume building, fantasy sports playing, Facebook chatting and weekend partying to devote to studying the platforms, propositions and credentials of presidential candidates, the history of America’s democratic transformations and the current political discourse? Bearing this in mind, how much confidence do we really put into our votes?
So here I am with the power to vote, the privilege of knowing that this vote will be representative, that my voice will be heard in a democratic election process without corruption. Yet here I am surrounded by politically engaged Moroccan youth, who are more informed than me about my own country and do not have this same electoral luxury. I sink in guilt knowing thatI’m not informed enough to confidently exercise this freedom.
In about one month I will leave Morocco and return home to face more political bombardment and institutional encouragement to participate as the presidential race picks up its pace. Come November, I will go to the polls and etch a bit of blue or black ink in the boxes of my ballot. However, I cannot say that I will confidently know the full impact of those very marks. As a 20-year-old college student who cannot give her informed opinion on the state’s budget or foreign policy interests, I wonder if my ignorance is worse than throwing away my vote.
Megan Devlin is a sophomore CMD major who can’t escape Buzzsaw, even when she is abroad. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.