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Expert on Elections Votes for the First Time

November 1, 2016

Judith Kelley smiling with "I voted early" button on chest

Judith Kelley, professor of public policy and political science, is an expert on election fraud and international election monitoring. She literally wrote a book on the topic. But until Monday, October 31, 2016, she had never voted.

The reason? She’s Danish, lives in the United States, and did not want to give up her Danish citizenship. Denmark requires voters to reside in country, and, until recently, did not allow dual citizenship. So she couldn’t vote in Denmark or the United States. Here’s what it was like.

Q: What’s it been like, being a non-voter?

A: Never voting just feels like you are excluded … like you don’t have a voice. And since elections become a collective social exercise for a country or a city, but particularly for a country for a presidential election, it serves to reinforce your feeling of otherness. You feel disempowered.

To be 49 years old and not have ever done that is otherworldly. How many other people have been in that situation? Not only to have not done it but not to have ever had the right to do it. Some people choose not to exercise that right, but when you can’t, that’s different.

Q: Why were you disenfranchised your whole adult life?

A: Because I was a citizen of Denmark, but a resident of the United States. In Denmark you must be resident to exercise your right to vote. In the U.S., you don’t have to be resident but you have to be a citizen and so, ironically, if I had been an American settled a long time in Denmark in a similar green card arrangement, I probably could have voted both places. But being a Dane living in the U.S., I had a right in neither place.

The obvious solution would have been to seek to gain U.S. citizenship. For a number of reasons, that option wasn’t available to me. I was the legal guardian for my brother who is mentally retarded and also for other reasons emotional reasons, I needed that citizenship …

It wasn’t until 18 months ago or so that the Danish government finally -- I think after 24 out of 27 EU countries already allowed dual citizenship -- Denmark finally got on board. I immediately applied then for American citizenship and it came through a few months ago.

Q: Tough timing. Everyone’s complaining how ugly the political process has been this year. Has the mudslinging been discouraging to you as a first-time voter?

A: For me the excitement and the empowerment of being able to express myself exactly in a situation that is so polarized is even more meaningful, actually -- because in this case I am so not indifferent about the choices -- that not having had a voice this time around would have been even more frustrating.

I study these types of things. I am not naïve, so I am probably not as disillusioned as others have been about it. Although that is disheartening and needs correction… the satisfaction of being able to go vote completely outweighs the negatives that have been dominating this campaign.

Q: So, how was it? Where did you vote?



I voted early and I voted at the Devil’s Den at Duke because I wanted to make a statement about the importance of polling places on campus.

I brought my husband along. I said to my son, who is 16, you’re going to come along. This is, for me, a really important moment.

… He and I worked down the ballot together and I enjoyed doing that with him. We got to place that was about a bond issue for the Museum of Life and Science and he loves the museum… I said, “What…something about a parking garage? They don’t need a parking garage.” He got all up in arms and said, “Mom, you have to vote ‘yes’ on that” … I got him riled up … he could see there were things that had ramifications for him. I enjoyed that experience.

When I walked up to the place where the where you stick your ballot in the box that was the most powerful moment ... The ballot box is the symbol of democracy, and the way you deposit your vote, sticking it in the machine and having the machine suck it up - I felt really good about that.

I felt really great about getting an “I voted” sticker because my whole life, everybody walks around with “I voted” stickers, (and I was) feeling ostracized, not being able to participate in that.

I memorialized my “I voted” sticker by sticking it on my computer. My first “I voted” sticker.

Q: Some races are so safe for incumbents that the outcomes are essentially pre-determined. But you are still enthusiastic about voting?

A: Yes, because they are not all decided. In North Carolina … none of the (U.S. House) districts are going to change hands and that’s frustrating. But if you can vote for something that is contested, i.e., the governorship, the next governor might be able to do something about that.

The silver lining is that we are now taking up important conversations about our own electoral system in the United States in ways I didn’t hear 10 years ago. Hopefully that’s a beginning of a conversation that leads to results way down the road… I’m hopeful.

When I do a talk I always say, “By the way, everybody, I am going to vote for the first time and you better get out there and do it too!”