“Eighteen,” I repeated. The officer noted that was my first answer. “I know,” I said. “I just don’t know what else it could be.”
The correct answer was “18 and older.”
It was the greatest test to my self-control not to argue about semantics with the immigration officer. I wanted to tell her: Listen, I know exactly how old you need to be to vote. I’ve desperately wanted to vote since I turned 18, and I still can’t. That’s why I’m sitting in front of you right now. But I bit my tongue; I was too close to finally getting naturalized.
I recalled this exchange recently, on my fifth anniversary of becoming a citizen. I realized I am just as upset now as I was in that moment five years ago. I was frustrated, because I just wanted to legally become an American and earn the right to vote — something that so many natural-born Americans take for granted, even long after they turn 18.
This question, and the answer, was deeply personal to me.
Three years before I took my test, I was a junior at Emory University. It was 2008, and I was 20 years old. The fall semester began with campus rallies and speeches by politicians, and everyone was talking about the election. I wished I could vote and was disappointed I couldn’t. I was just coming into my political and civic awareness, and starting to figure out my social and fiscal values. I cared about my money, job opportunities and the world I’d be entering after graduating. I wanted to vote for leaders who reflected my values and shared my concerns.
But as a permanent resident of the United States and a green-card holder, I was ineligible to vote.
Too many Americans sit out by choice. Just 67 percent of adults in a Washington Post-ABC poll this month said they were “absolutely certain” to vote. Nine percent said the chances were 50-50, and 10 percent said the chances were less than that. Six percent said they would not vote.
Actual turnout is pathetic. In 2012, 59 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election. The turnout rate has not surpassed 65 percent since at least 1948, according to the U.S. Elections Project. The top excuse among Americans who didn’t vote in 2014 was: They were “too busy.”
This year, voters are distrustful of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The candidates are unpopular with many voters, and many people have election news fatigue. Fifty-two percent of registered voters have an unfavorable impression of Clinton and 61 percent of registered voters view Trump unfavorably, the Post-ABC poll found. As of mid-July, 59 percent of Americans reported feeling exhausted by the election coverage, the Pew Research Center found. As someone who spends all day writing about untruths uttered by political candidates, I get it. It’s a tough choice, but it doesn’t mean you should choose to sit out.
If citizenship were granted based on how American one feels, I would’ve been naturalized when I was in elementary school. I was born in Seoul and immigrated to Guam when I was 7. I chose the name “Michelle” when I entered first grade, because it sounded pretty and it was easier for my classmates to pronounce than my legal Korean name, “Ye Hee.”
I appreciated my Korean heritage. But I loved my new American culture and adjusted to it quickly. Americans were so diverse and open-minded (though Guam probably skewed my perception because of the prevalence of immigrants there). Everyone did what came naturally to them, and social fads and norms weren’t as extreme as they were in South Korea. In immigrant-heavy Guam, I didn’t feel like a total outsider: Most of my friends had legal Asian names but went by American names at school. Their moms, like mine, packed pungent Asian food for lunch — but we swapped it with the Lunchables the white kids brought.
I felt and believed I was Korean American, especially living in the mainland for the first time when I arrived in Atlanta for college. I hated that the American part of my identity didn’t exist on paper. On Election Day in 2008, my friends wore their “I Voted” stickers on campus and asked why I wasn’t wearing mine. I was ashamed — not all my friends knew I wasn’t an American citizen, and I felt out of place — and I muttered something about not having a sticker. It was all I could admit at the time.
I was naturalized on Aug. 5, 2011. I wore a red dress, white sandals and a blue bracelet. I sat in the front row and filled out my voter registration form before the ceremony began. The judge told us to embrace our new civic duties, by voting and serving on a jury without complaining. I legally became Michelle that day, and I made Ye Hee my middle name. I still go by both names. I submitted my voter registration form at the booth outside the courtroom. My colleagues at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix threw me a surprise American-themed party with hot dogs, apple pies, root beer floats and U.S. flags.
I voted in my first presidential election in 2012 and got my “I Voted” sticker. I immediately posted it all over social media.
There are legitimate challenges to voter access that keep eligible people from voting. For example, turnout is less consistent in poorer neighborhoods, where people may not be able to afford to take time off to cast a ballot. But the top reasons eligible voters didn’t vote in 2012 and 2014 were unrelated to voter access: too busy, not interested, not liking the issues or simply forgetting. In 2012, just 2.7 percent of people who didn’t vote said they couldn’t find a polling place, and 5.5 percent had a registration issue.
In that election — the first one I could take part in — nearly one out of every five people who didn’t vote said they skipped it because they were too busy. It’s as if voting is a luxury, something you do if you remember to do it, and if you’re not too bored by it. You shouldn’t need a ceremony with a federal judge to understand that voting isn’t just a matter of convenience.
About 700,000 people each year become naturalized U.S. citizens. They have earned it over years of assimilation — out of will or necessity — and thousands of dollars for legal representation and in application fees. But every election year, there are people who desperately wish they could have a say in the country they love and aren’t eligible to do so yet — like me in 2008.
So vote this fall. If you’re tired of Trump and Clinton, look into third-party candidates or spend your energy researching your state or local elections. If you’re too busy, request an early ballot and mail it in. Vote, because it’s your right and privilege, one you were either lucky enough to be born with, or resilient enough to earn.
Vote — that is, if you’re 18 and older.