Ten years ago, Sarah left Maryland in the United States and moved to Prague. She decided to stay in the Czech Republic, where she teaches English. Studentské listy interviewed her about presidential election, current America, her worries for the future and why she decided to vote for Joe Biden.
What are you looking for in a presidential candidate?
My ideal candidate and my possible candidate are very different. For me, a lot of social issues like equality, social justice and access to healthcare are very important. I think that is because I have lived in Europe for so long and I have seen the way that social programs work here. I have also been taxed here on my income and I have seen what benefits that gets me here versus when I am taxed in the US and the benefits that I get there. Having equal access to opportunities like education and healthcare, that is what is really important.
Unfortunately, my ideal candidate doesn’t exist in the United States. If I were going to pick someone closest to my ideal candidate it probably would have been Bernie Sanders. But I think that right now the issues are so extreme that it is, unfortunately, more important to choose the candidate who has the possibility of winning and will do the least harm as opposed to me choosing my ideal candidate.
So, Biden is definitely not your ideal candidate?
No, he is not. But he is the only candidate that, in the two-party system in the US, I can possibly vote for in good conscience.
Are you watching the debates?
No, they make me very angry. And I had to mail in my ballot over a month ago so they have no impact on my voting. They have a lot of impact on my mental health, so I avoid them.
In general, how do you feel about the voting system in the United States?
I think that the voting system is very broken. The big problem is that the voting system is not consistent, each state can kind of make their own rules. It makes it very difficult for an average voter to be informed. But also, I think that there are ways in which it is easier to vote in the United States than, say, in the Czech Republic, especially if you are not living in the country. I know that Czech citizens living abroad who want to vote have to go to a Czech embassy, which can sometimes be quite difficult. In the United States, because of our huge military presence abroad, we do make voting a lot more accessible to people living abroad. It still isn’t a great system.
What is the process of voting from Prague?
First, in my state (Maryland) I have to make sure I am still registered to vote every year. I have several options when I register to vote to get my absentee ballot. I can vote as if I am returning to Maryland, which allows me to vote in all of my races – from the city I lived in, to the county, the state and then the federal election.
The other option is that I can register as if I am not returning, which then only allows me to vote in federal elections. Maryland lets you choose if you would like to receive your absentee ballot physically in the mail or by email, but to return your ballot you must physically mail it back in. Some states allow you to send your ballot by email or by fax, but unfortunately, Maryland doesn’t allow that.
I mailed my ballot on the 30th of September and my ballot still hasn’t been received by the board of election. I’ve actually called my local board of election multiple times to check on things and they issued me a new ballot, so I can mail it again. But right now, with the current lockdown, it is quite hard, because I will need to have a company like DHL or FedEx to send it. And it is also quite expensive, about 1700 czk.
So, there is a chance that your vote is actually not going to be counted?
Yes. I was talking to the women at the board of elections earlier today because I wanted to know what happens if I mail in my second ballet, but they receive my first ballot. She said that they have a system in place so that whichever one they receive first will be counted. At least one ballot would count. The election is on the 3rd of November, so anything I send them has to be postmarked before the 3rd of November, but they have to physically receive it before the 13th of November.
In years past I have never had a problem with voting from Prague, it was always very easy. Now, during covid, the mail is very delayed and it’s very different than in the past. It is a little bit scary because this year President Trump and the Republicans have really been attacking and trying to discredit the absentee voting system in the US. The idea that even if you do all the steps correctly and you get them your ballot in time, there are people actively working to discredit these votes, is scary.
What are the most important topics in general for US citizens before the election?
I think that that is a really hard question and that is a part of the problem. There are so many different people – who are from very different walks of life, different geographic areas, different backgrounds. So, what is important changes depending on the people. I personally think that the United States right now is having a huge crisis. People, especially marginalized communities, are extremely unhappy and they are afraid for their safety, their rights and liberties. They are worried about what changes are going to come if the current administration continues. There are a lot of questions about the issues that will be raised in the Supreme Court or maybe Supreme Court decisions that will be overturned, like access to abortion, women’s reproductive health issues, equality for LGBT people.
And obviously, as we see with the Black lives matter movement, minorities are not happy with the way they have been treated and they are afraid. I think that is one of the largest issues. But there are also plenty of people in the US that would say that those aren’t big issues because they aren’t issues that directly impact them. I think that in itself is one of the biggest issues in the US. That we can’t decide what the big issues are.
You’ve mentioned the Black lives matter movement, how do you think it is going to influence the election?
I think one of the issues is that people on both sides are being frightened. People of colour in the United States are afraid for their lives and more conservative people are made to be afraid of people who are part of the movement. And I think that when people are afraid, they do dangerous things.
Also, when people in the United States think of other citizens, who only believe things differently than them, as terrorists, there is a real question of what is going to happen when the results of this election are announced. I mean we have people who have pretty firmly stated that they aren’t going to believe the result of this election unless it goes the way they want it to go. There have been speculations about whether there is going to be a peaceful transfer of power in case Biden wins. I think that is very scary to everybody right now, not just in the political climate of the US, but also in the midst of a pandemic.
How has the pandemic influenced the election?
I think that, and I say this as somebody looking from the outside, the pandemic situation has just further polarized people. I don’t think that it necessarily changed people’s minds so much as it pushed them further into the opinions they already have. I think it has really divided people.
The situation in the US right now is quite heated – is there still a way to start a peaceful discussion between Trump and Biden supporters?
I think that politics in the United States have been very divided for a very long time. I think that it has gotten a lot uglier recently and I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to the old normal. It is also sad to me that going back to the old normal would be a good move. Even though that at the time it didn’t seem great, now comparatively it seems like the good old days. I think that America is going through a really big shift right now and I don’t know how we are going to come to terms with that. I don’t know if civil debate will return. And even if it does, I don’t know if a civil debate will help fix the issues.
I suppose you have someone, who you are close with, that votes for Trump. Is it possible for you to talk to them and understand some of their reason?
Right now, in my personal life, I am not talking explicitly about Trump vs Biden. I have a lot of extended family members who are going to vote for Trump. And I know that nothing that I can say is ever going to change their mind because most of them are influenced by their religion to vote the way that they are voting. And I cannot talk to them about those things. I do have other family members who I strongly believe voted for Trump the last election and I am not certain who are they voting for this time. With those people, I try to talk about issues that are important to me or some of my experiences living here without necessarily making it about Republican vs Democrat or Trump vs Biden. I think that in the United States there are a lot of things we do not understand that maybe scare us or things that aren’t done in the United States that we assume those aren’t good things, just because we don’t do them like this. And my experience in living here has shown me that there are different ways.
I have a lot of family members who are in the military and a lot of members of our armed forces enjoy the benefit of social programmes that are not available to the average American. And their programmes or opportunities are very similar to the opportunities that I have access to living here. I try to show them that I think it is a bit hypocritical to deny people the same social programmes that you have access to because you’re a military member or work for the government.
While reading about the Democratic primaries I’ve found out that only about 20 % of the questions were related to American foreign policy. It this really such an unimportant topic for American citizens?
I think that in the election people are most concerned about the things that concern them individually. In the Czech Republic, foreign policy or EU policy is very important because it touches all of your borders. In the US there are plenty of places that don’t feel like they are impacted by foreign relations, even though they are. I think that domestic issues are more in the forefront of people’s minds unless we’re in the midst of a war. Especially because when candidates are debating in the United States, they are talking to individuals in all of the different states all over the country. There isn’t a federal electorate, they are basically trying to get the votes from all the states. Because of that, they focus is less on foreign policy.
In the current world conspiracy theories are a huge trend – is this somehow projected in the US election?
Yes. I think that conspiracy theories have always been around. Human beings have always tried to explain things and they have always been storytellers. Now with the Internet, it is so easy to find yourself in an ‘’echo chamber’’ and it is so easy to find information that self-validates and then takes you down a rabbit hole of other conspiracy theories.
I notice this hugely in the Cech Republic now during the coronavirus, but I am surprised at how common conspiracy theories seem to be not on the fringes of political beliefs in the Czech Republic but kind of throughout.
I don’t even know if I want to state some examples of the American ones, they are too horrible. Basically, all of the conspiracies happening in the Czech Republic around the coronavirus are also happening in the US – ideas about 5G, bioweapons, concentrated attacks to harm the economy or make money on the vaccine, things about Bill Gates. There are also some really dangerous ones going around the US, I am almost not comfortable talking about them, like QAnon. Things like that are very scary to me and when the president of the United States refuses to acknowledge that something like this is a conspiracy theory and is unfounded, it is really dangerous.
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