Brooks Sterritt found out he was accused of voter fraud in the most recent election via a Google Alert. The PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote about his experience and what it taught me about belonging and exclusion in America for New Republic.
His name had appeared in the digital edition of his hometown’s daily newspaper. The article stated that the chairman of the Republican Party in Pasquotank County, where he had voted by mail-in absentee ballot, was attempting to invalidate Sterritt’s and 21 others by challenging their residency.
Sterritt was one of many people accused by Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign of voter fraud. At the time he learned of the accusation, McCrory hadn’t yet conceded the election.
I initially found the challenge quite odd. I wasn’t a felon, hadn’t voted in another state, and hadn’t attempted to vote in someone else’s name. The GOP chairman behind the local challenge, Richard Gilbert, filed what is technically called an elections protest petition disputing my residency in the county. It’s true, I don’t reside in Pasquotank County. I voted by absentee ballot, something one does, by definition, when absent.
I’ve been a registered voter since 2002, and voted absentee while in college in North Carolina, in graduate school in Boston, while studying and teaching in a foreign country, and most recently while pursuing a doctorate in Chicago. I voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries while teaching English in Rövershagen, Germany. I used the event for a unit on the American political process (the witnesses who signed my ballot weren’t even U.S. citizens). Indeed, the same principle allows members of the military to vote from overseas. Regardless of where one temporarily resides, a voter can legally cast a ballot using the address of their domicile, defined in part and somewhat poetically as the place “to which…that person has the intention of returning.”
Sterritt goes on in the piece to talk about his argument and tries to describe the basis for which he claims Pasquotank County as home.
Consider the weight of the combination “born and raised.” There’s an elemental edge to the phrase, as though it refers to something that came out of the ground. But merely being born somewhere, in and of itself, does little to change your lived experience going forward. Though my father was born in Canada, he never considered it his home. This is because his parents (U.S. citizens) returned with him to Upstate New York while he was still very young. Where I was born, where I grew up, where my parents live, where I lived for the longest period, where landmarks trigger the oldest memories: phrases that refer to the same place. If my parents moved to Big Arm, Montana, would I consider it my home? Doubtful. I wonder about other tipping points, however. I lived in one town for 18 years, and the latter 12 of those were in the same house. If I had instead lived in three towns for six years each, which would feel most like home?
Taken to extremes, the emphasis on origin, nativeness, “those who belong” leads to the converse: an emphasis on outsiders, strangers, foreign bodies, infectious agents. It’s no coincidence that the language of this most recent challenge to voter eligibility in Pasquotank County contains phrases like “symptom of voter fraud” and again, however redundantly, “symptom of a systemic infection of voter fraud.” Compare the president-elect’s words on illegal immigration: “Infectious disease” is “pouring across the border.” Consider the words of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security advisor: “Islam is a political ideology. … It’s like a malignant cancer.”
Republicans, in their current form, are a party so desperate to win they are increasingly turning to voter suppression, partisan redistricting, and appeals to fear of the other. These and other efforts have only increased my desire to vote in North Carolina, and many share this view. The hard work of organizing as well as continuing demographic changes make it more likely North Carolina will be known as a progressive (though imperfect) southern state rather than the state that repealed the Racial Justice Act and introduced HB2. On December 15, the state board of elections, which had assumed jurisdiction over the challenge to my voter eligibility, voted unanimously to dismiss the challenge. I look forward to voting in North Carolina’s federally ordered special election in 2017.