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Amanda Gorman: vote because you must, vote because you can

As the US presidential election nears, poet and activist AMANDA GORMAN reflects on the importance of voting – personally, politically, and for the future of the planet

Lifestyle
Artwork by Lindsay Adams

I didn’t vote in the 2016 US presidential election. I can assure you it was not without trying, and that I’ve spent the last four years mentally lacerating myself anyway. In fact, when 2016 hit, I couldn’t have been more excited to cast my ballot for the first time as an 18-year-old. At that time, which seems like several decades ago, it felt like the US could be on the cusp of electing its first ever female president. That historical possibility made voting that year seem all the more significant. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren, when I am bent over on a porch and wrinkled as a prune, that I’d partaken in that election.

Unfortunately, as that November Election Day drew closer, I realized the ballot I’d mailed weeks earlier hadn’t actually arrived at the clerks’ office. I’d mailed my ballot because I was studying at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my polling place was across the country in my birth city of Los Angeles.

I still remember the moment when I realized I’d be sitting the election out, not by choice, but by mistake. I felt roils of shame, guilt, frustration, and a powerlessness

My stomach dropped. I scrambled around desperately on the internet, anxiously called my city clerk, trying to find any way that I could still vote. But it was too late. If I wanted to cast my ballot, I’d have to somehow make it to my polling place before the voting booths closed in under three hours. As flying from Boston to LA is a six-hour journey if you’re lucky, the only way that was going to happen was if I could magically materialize in California. I still remember the moment when I realized I’d be sitting the election out, not by choice, but by mistake. I felt roils of shame, guilt, frustration, and a powerlessness that was too ancient to only be mine.

My family spent centuries without the right to vote. It’s a privilege that’s never been guaranteed for us, but a freedom we’ve had to fight for generations to attain. On both sides of my family, I am descended from African American slaves who toiled in the American South (as coincidence, or fate, would have it, one of those enslaved ancestors also shared my namesake). During the Great Migration, they flocked out west or to the north, seeking lives that were better than the persecution they’d left behind. But yet again they met segregation and discrimination, all the while never being able to cast a vote in the country that they’d helped build. While women technically gained the right to vote in 1920, in practice most Black women would be kept from the polls until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Meaning that when my 18th birthday came along, the women in my family had barely been able to vote for two generations. That is to say, my family was counted as property for four times longer than we’ve counted as voters.

Missing out on the 2016 election is one of my greatest regrets, but also one of my greatest learning opportunities. I emerged with a determination that I would never again leave my vote up to chance. When I returned home for the holidays, my family took to the polls as one to vote together. When I went back to school, I joined a nonpartisan club that helped increase voter turnout among our students. As I sat at our table in the student center, passing out information on upcoming deadlines, I noticed the relief and gratitude flood over people’s faces. Turns out I wasn’t alone in finding the voting system to be disorienting. It was rewarding to help others avoid the same mistakes I had made. And I didn’t quit when I graduated; even now, as I write this, I’m working with my twin, Gabrielle Gorman, on a brand new voting project.

The stakes of any election have never been higher. The health of the country and the world, as well as the state of our planet-in-crisis, are all on the line

You’re going to hear a lot of people encouraging you to vote – vote because you should, because you must. I’d add to that: vote because you can. We’ve fought for centuries for such a basic right, and it’s a battle that still continues. Countless obstacles keep people from the ballot box – gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, work, disease and death, as we’re reminded daily due to Covid. When we vote, we’re standing up for the future that others cannot demand.

The stakes of any election have never been higher. The health of the country and the world, as well as the state of our planet-in-crisis, are all on the line. Hearing that, it’s all too easy to throw up one’s hands. But I truly believe that our world isn’t broken. It’s unfinished. And it’s time for us to get to work. Voting doesn’t just give me hope. Voting is hope, just expressed as action.

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