XI’AN, CHINA — Michael Graney lives in Xi’an, a large city smack dab in the middle of Shaanxi, China.
With bustling streets, air thick with pollution and mountains just visible through the haze, Xi’an is one of China’s oldest cities, an important cultural, industrial and educational epicenter.
Michael is in his third year as a graduate student, here, studying Chinese sociology and culture. He lives in a small studio with wooden floors, wallpapered walls, sporadic electricity and a humble, all-in-one bathroom with a laundry machine.
He spends most days on the move teaching, writing his thesis, or engaging with his community — air pollution permitting.
^Michael at a farm in Xi’an, China
Michael grew up on the opposite end of the world in Charleston, West Virginia. Raised in a small capital city, early on Michael witnessed the power of politics and local community engagement.
“Even if you didn’t know the decision-makers, you saw them in the community,” Michael says, slightly chuckling, “in West Virginia, everyone always says ‘you can talk about anything except politics — that’s personal.’”
These early experiences have clearly shaped Michael’s connection to community and civic duty, along with his parents’ dedication to taking him and his brothers on trips around the world as kids, valuing exposure to perspectives different than “American”.
“Understanding where other people are coming from and holding an appreciation for other cultures is something I’ve always valued, will always carry with me,” says Michael. “I’ve always been drawn to learn about people.”
^Michael with friends sharing tea in Xi’an, China
In an interesting way, Michael’s home turf in West Virginia mirrors his current reality in China: a capital city surrounded by largely rural communities, or, significant pockets of development surrounded by sprawling landscapes of relative poverty.
Despite this curious similarity, in other ways the two places couldn’t be more different: one is located in a country that prioritizes the individual, is shaped by political goings-on and an engaged community sentiment.
The other is directed by a deep-rooted tradition that places priority on the collective, is governed by hierarchy and an at-times opaque rank-and-file order.
“Here in China, power is pretty much top-down. They have elections at the very local grassroots level in villages, but from then on, people are appointed, work through the ranks, and apply to politics like you’d apply to any other job.”
The idea of citizens “rights” are also of a different flavor in China.
“A friend recently asked me whether we learned about our rights in school and I said yes. For him, that doesn’t happen. It made me appreciate the U.S. constitution, that we have rights, and that they’re even taught to us. It made me appreciate that so many years ago when the constitution was written there might’ve been an opportunity to take advantage of that, but people didn’t.
“In the U.S., if I get pulled over for going too fast, I have a process to contest that, if I want. There’s rule of law, even if I don’t like when I have to pay parking tickets.
“That sort of transparency is what comes from voting.”
^Michael with friends in the mountains in Xi’an, China
So when it came time to vote in the 2018 U.S. Midterms, this backdrop — China — served as an interesting setting for Michael.
“Voting is one of those things you always know is a privilege and a civic duty, but now living in a place where people can’t vote, it just means so much more. Not only is the government accountable, they’re accountable to me, to us.”
Despite being far away, Michael has remained closely connected to the issues happening back home.
“I read The Economist every week, I still read the Charleston Gazette, and I talk to my parents about what’s happening back home in West Virginia.”
^Michael with fellow students in Xi’an, China
As a “UOCAVA voter” — a voter classified as living overseas or a member of the uniformed military — Michael’s options to vote in the Midterms were either by mail, fax, or email.
These voting options required him to print a paper ballot, fill it out and entrust a nearly 10,000 mile journey to arrive in time, or to send a ballot via email for his County Clerk to replicate by hand, relinquishing his right to privacy.
“When I was in college in Virginia, I voted absentee by mail, and, you know, I’m fairly sure it got there from Virginia to West Virginia, but on time? From China to West Virginia, that concern increases.”
^Michael lives in Xi’an, China, nearly 10,000 miles from his home in Charleston, West Virginia
Just before the 2018 Midterms, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced a first-of-its-kind mobile voting pilot that would enable overseas voters to vote in a new way — with their smartphones.
Michael happened to live in one of the 24 participating counties and was eligible to participate. He let his County know, downloaded the Voatz app, and verified his identity against the State Voter Registration Database.
“The identity process wasn’t bad — it took my face, then my license — that part was easiest.”
^Michael voted using Voatz on his smartphone in his apartment in Xi’an China
From there, Michael received his mobile ballot.
“Every time I logged into the app it recognized my face right away. It felt good to be able to have the time to view my ballot and go and research my choices before voting — I did that for the City Council race.”
Once he was ready, “I voted pretty much right away. I was in my apartment, at the end of the school day, and I turned on my VPN, even though I probably didn’t need to just because you know — I guess I’ve always thought of voting as a private and I wanted privacy. That was my sort of 20th century version of a plastic booth with a curtain — a virtual curtain.”
“I felt secure because it was explained to me well before starting — with the blockchain technology and getting the ballot receipt to verify my choices.
“Mostly, having voted with Voatz, I know it got there more than on time, and that it was counted early.”
What about the future?
“In this global world where people live far and wide, I think it’s important that we can still maintain our civic duty. I’m very proud that West Virginia is the first — sometimes it is hard to get to the polls whether you’re at work or in China. It’s important we all have the opportunity to vote legitimately and safely.”