Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Becoming a US citizen to vote for Obama

Fiona Weigant will cast her first ballot in a US presidential election this November. She reports today from the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, where Bill Clinton endorsed Barack Obama last night.

Thu, Sep 6, 2012, 12:00


Fiona Weigant will cast her first ballot in a US presidential election this November. She reports today from the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, where Bill Clinton endorsed Barack Obama last night.

President Barack Obama embraces former president Bill Clinton onstage during the second session of the Democratic National Convention last night. Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters

As a young girl growing up in Dublin, I never dreamed I’d be making a trip to an event like the Democratic National Convention, which began in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday. I have travelled to the convention, where President Barack Obama and his vice-president Joe Biden will seek nomination for a second term, as part of the blogging press.

My road to the convention started four years ago when American politics was energized by Obama’s campaign. As a Green Card holder, I had followed the 2008 campaign at a certain distance, given that I could not vote. I felt I had a stake in the outcome, yet I was unable to influence the result.

The election of President Obama made me realize that I could no longer be an observer on the sideline. I had to be a participant, so I became an American citizen. I knew I had made the right decision when my husband Chris and I attended Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. It was a day I will never forget. There we were, two amongst thousands, on the Mall in Washington DC in the freezing cold waiting to see the swearing in on the giant TV screen. Before the event started, Bono warmed us up. It was worth it though to experience that “being a part of something great” feeling.

I grew up in Ranelagh in Dublin, in a home steeped in Irish politics. I remember stuffing envelopes with my Mum for Fine Gael election campaigns in the 1970s, when our house was filled with people running for office. I made so many cheesecakes for the cheese and wine fundraisers my Mum threw that I vowed never to make one again once I left home. In those days you could not walk down Sandford Road without bumping into a politician looking for your vote. It is very different here in the United States, and especially in California (where I have lived for the past seventeen years). You might be lucky enough to meet your city mayor or your local state representative here but there is very little access to politicians at the national level.

The two-party system here was very strange to me at first. I could not understand how you could have a real democracy without the choice of multiple parties and platforms. Both the Republicans and the Democrats like to stress how inclusive they are. They both talk about being “big tents.” In this way they attract people who feel strongly about particular issues; such as small government vs big government, states’ rights, women’s rights, minorities and immigration to name but a few.

Fiona at Obama's presidential inauguration in 2009

One of the reasons such issue groups do not form their own parties is that it is extremely difficult for a new third party to participate in national elections – it is very hard and expensive to get your candidate on all 50 state ballots. It is also important to note that in order to vote in the party primary elections, (which choose the candidates for the general elections); you have to be registered to vote as a member of that party. In recent years some states have experimented with open primary elections but most have reverted back to the members-only model by the next election cycle. It is for that reason that I myself registered to vote as a Democrat. This year I will cast my first vote in a presidential election.

Along with the rest of the country, I watched the Republican National Convention last week where candidate for President, Mitt Romney, told the American people that his agenda was their agenda. That he would work on their issues and be on their side. That he would take the country in the direction they wanted to go. Was he successful? Did he convince the Republican base that he can win this election? Did he persuade any undecided television viewers to exercise their vote for him? According to the mainstream media and the social media he managed to not say anything too controversial or to alienate the base too much. I agree the base will at best hold their noses and vote for him and at worst stay home and not vote for the other guy.

Day one Democratic National Convention this Tuesday took a while to get going but ended with an emotional and electrifying speech delivered by Michelle Obama, which was followed by another rousing endorsement by Bill Clinton last night. I am sure that many in Ireland have seen the highlights by now. It took me this long to get out of the security zone so I could start writing (well… maybe I did go to a party or two before coming back to the hotel…) If you remember what it was like when President Obama was in Dublin last year, just imagine that chaos one hundred times over. My dad went down to see the President speak and said it was a brillant show but he would have been better off watching it on the television.

YouTube Preview Image

Once I was inside the convention center (The Time Warner Cable Arena) things were a lot better. I was able to wonder around the halls and speak to many of the delegates as well as other press. Everyone was excited to be there, to be part of this very American political process.

Press with “hall passes” are also allowed to exchange their pass for a 15-minute “floor pass”. I have to say that it was an amazing experience to be down on the floor in front of the stage. The delegates were wearing their best campaign hats and buttons and the television media were doing sound bites and interviews.

The crowd cheered and roared its way through both evenings. Rob Dolan, a delegate from Washington state, summed up why he gives so much of his own time and energy to a political party: “I want to wake up the day after the election and know that I have done everything I could to make our country a better place.” This is why Americans come to political conventions in the first place — to try to influence their country’s politics. In America everything is on a much grander scale than in Ireland but the urge to improve their country’s leadership remains the same.

Fiona Weigant lives in Santa Cruz, California and has previously lived in Paris and Dublin (where she was born). Fiona works in the office of research at the University of California, Santa Cruz.