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As a non-citizen, I can’t vote. I still care about U.S. elections.

It’s finally over. After almost a year and a half of campaigning, debates, and a global pandemic thrown into the mix, the United States is preparing to welcome the Biden-Harris administration into the White House. This year saw the highest voter turnout in modern history, especially among young and minority voters.

The country has spoken! Or has it?

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Upon turning eighteen this summer, I remembered I could not take part in one of the decade’s most defining events — voting in the 2020 presidential election. Non-citizens such as me have no choice but to silently watch from sidelines, as the rest of the country decides its fate.

As someone who is very interested in the workings of government and has called the United States home for the past six years, I felt a pang in my heart as I watched my friends drop off their ballots, many of them proudly exercising their right to vote for the first time. It’s one thing to have FOMO (fear of missing out) when you see your friends do something without you. But seeing them participate in a civic duty from which you are legally barred is a whole other feeling.

Among other restrictions, a U.S. citizen must be at least 18 years old and meet state residency requirements to vote in U.S. presidential elections. We often assume that almost everyone who lives in the United States can vote. But those who cannot comprise a more significant chunk of our population than you might think.

In many states, citizens with felony convictions cannot vote; non-citizens (regardless of permanent resident status), those deemed mentally incapacitated, and all residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories similarly cannot vote.

Non-citizens and residents of U.S. territories alone illustrate the non-voting population’s substantial size. The United States Census Bureau estimates that some 4 million U.S. citizens live in U.S. territories and, according to Pew Research Center data from 2017, 12.3 million permanent residents live in the United States, along with 2.2 million temporary residents — most of whom have been living in the United States for more than five years.

That means at least 18.5 million people had a direct stake in the election’s outcome but couldn’t vote. And in the context of the 160 million people who did cast a ballot this year, 18.5 million is a significant number.

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Our great democratic process shuns more than 18.5 million people who call the United States, a country founded by immigrants, home. While it is easy to point fingers and blame legislators or the electoral college (everyone’s personal favorite), we must consider the negative implications that accompany not being able to vote.

From a young age, we learn that political participation is key. We must inform ourselves of key issues our country is facing and hold politicians accountable for their actions. It can be quite difficult, however, to be an active participant when the country doesn’t really care what you think.

This is the problem non-voting residents face. Since we can’t vote and contribute to election outcomes, we’re inclined just to ignore the process altogether. For us, it’s just another Tuesday.

I know from experience where this feeling come from. While some of these people may go on to become citizens, they can still harbor that indifference. But everyone — even those not en route to citizenship — still live here and have a role to play.

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There are several ways for us to take part in our democracy without voting. While voting might be the highest point in the perceived hierarchy of political participation, we can make our concerns and needs heard among the population that does vote and help them in making voting accessible for more people.

Princeton has made some of these opportunities available to their students, but they can do more. The conversation shouldn’t end when a person responds “No” to “Are you eligible to vote?,” as it often has in my experience. It should continue with, “Okay, here is a list of ways you can still be involved in the election process.”

There are opportunities out there, but most of us are not aware of them, because our country frames elections as something “not for us.” 

The voting population must make non-voters feel that their presence and opinions matter and heed our concerns. Non-voters must make sure we put ourselves out there and advocate for the causes we care about.

So, to everybody waiting it out in the 18.5 million side with me: we might not be able to vote, but the United States is still our home, and the decisions it makes will affect us one way or another. Keep advocating for more opportunities to take part in our democracy and dive into ones that are already present. And always remember that democracy is a team effort, even though it might not feel like it sometimes.

Alaina Joby is a first-year from Los Angeles, Calif. She can be reached at ajoby@princeton.edu.  

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