The first presidential election I experienced while living abroad was in 2008. I was working for the United States Peace Corps at the time, living in a small village in rural Malawi. We had only been in the country for one month at the time, and were still living in small groups with a supervisor, while we completed our training and learned to speak rudimentary Chitumbuka.
The night of the election, myself and eight other members of my group gathered together at one of our supervisor’s houses. We brought over sleeping bags and mattresses and snacks and camped out in her living room. We had hitchhiked to the market on the border between Malawi and Mozambique a few days before, and bought pop corn, and cookies and coca-cola and fantas, so we were well-supplied.
The village where we were staying didn’t have electricity, so we tuned a small battery-powered radio to the BBC World Service to listen as the results came in. The week before, our supervisor had gone into the Peace Corps office and printed out blank maps of the United States for each of us, and every time a state was called for either Barack Obama or John McCain we colored it in, red or blue.
It was a very different election party from the ones I had attended back in America, sitting in front of a television, eating enormous amounts of snack foods, and texting friends all across the country throughout the night. But it was still fun to be with friends, eating popcorn, listening as the results came in.
Sometime in the morning, about an hour or so before sunrise, the radio called the election in favor of Barack Obama, and we listened to Obama give his victory speech, and to McCain’s concession. I felt, in those moments, a strange mix of nostalgia for home and a connection to Americans all across the globe. Wherever we were, most of us were probably listening to this same announcement, and it was affecting us all, no matter how long we had been away.
I’ve been away from America for most elections since then. I’ve developed a routine of listening to the radio, furiously texting friends, and opening roughly 23 tabs to different news and analysis sites online. Every election is different, but I’ve always found that same mix of nostalgia and connection sweeping over me at the end of the night.
The 2020 election is different from most. Wherever we are, most Americans watched the results alone, or with a few close members of our family. The stakes feel higher this time — the sense of tension and divisiveness far greater than it has ever been.
There’s an absurd amount of hope and optimism that goes into voting — it rests on the idea that it is the people themselves who make up a country, who decide on its leaders and policies. There’s a sense of connectedness at the core of that premise that stays true no matter where we are in the world, no matter what our situation is, and no matter what decisions we make when we send in our ballot.