The ballot box in our town is next to the library book drop box. For the last month, each time I went to return library books, I'd see a person, masked, step out of their car, ballot in hand, walk to the box and drop in their vote. And each time, I felt a sense of giddiness, an overwhelming urge to congratulate that person, a desire to celebrate.
'In Iran, when we have elections, the government replaces entire ballot boxes. The whole box, physically.'
I didn't know what their vote was, or where their politics stood. It just felt like a little victory, that walk from the car to a box covered in instructions in multiple languages, yellow and unassuming, safe and secure, no crowds, no threats, just a lovely October afternoon to use your voice, mark your choice, seal the envelope and participate in democracy.
For nearly 2½ centuries, America has set the global example of how a democracy must proceed. Thirty-eight years ago, my parents, believing firmly in the values of this country, escaped the rise of the Islamic theocracy in Iran and rebuilt their lives here. My parents sacrificed a lot for this opportunity granted to me, the chance to vote and have that vote mean something.
Nine months ago, Iran also held elections, for its parliament. The candidates were individually selected by the Guarding Council, a committee of 12 officials whose sole task is to make certain that all potential contenders support the regime. The people of Iran boycotted the election in mass, with Tehran reporting only 25.4 percent turnout. The majority of the citizens refused to participate in the illusion of a democracy.
Those same civilians, all across Iran, followed America's election count closely. Friends and family I spoke to after Election Day told me they'd become experts in how the Electoral College functions, and they tried to predict which states were likely to turn red or blue. Before I dropped in my ballot, I waited a moment in recognition of the magnitude of the act I was engaging in, because participation in fair and free elections is one of the pillars of democracy.
Afterward, like the rest of America, I watch the vote tally climb, the map shift and change. I waited anxiously for the results, the meticulous tabulating of votes. I listened to the president demand a stop to the counting, insist that the votes in states not supporting him were illegal. He threatened and instigated lawsuits. He refused to agree to respect the outcome of the election if he lost, and he might never concede.
Leading up to Election Day was no better. The president claimed that mail-in ballots were fraudulent, that the only way he could lose was if the election were rigged. Even before it was clear that the votes were against him, the president called for his supporters to stand watch at polling centers. And they came, armed and menacing.
As I watched this unfold, I wondered whether it was how my parents felt before we escaped Iran, as the avenues became hostile places patrolled by armed civilians dedicated to their leader. As there were mass riots, mistrust of neighbors, the grocer, the mailman. The fear to voice dissension, even to the closest of friends.
I felt this and wondered whether, now as a parent myself, it was time to leave. In our city, businesses boarded up their windows in fear of riots. Los Angeles trained its police for nonlethal crowd management, New York deployed hundreds of officers to voting centers.
Through that chaos, the election officials and secretaries of state were not deterred. From diverse backgrounds and states across this country, they spoke thoughtfully to the media, calmly urged citizens to trust the system, begged for our patience, reassured us this moment was not a moment for doubt.
The world waited, too, watching these two Americas. Headlines proclaimed that America was not only failing as an example of democracy, but also "damaging the cause of global democracy." International experts warned of upheaval and civil unrest in America, assessing that the American president's "toxic rhetoric" might lead to the possibility of armed violence.
Leaders around the world spoke with concern, chastised, made smug comments. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized the United States, claimed that America had "lost control" and could no longer advise other countries on how to protect the rights of their citizens.
But the image of America that prevailed was the one broadcast in hours of video of masked volunteers risking their own safety during a pandemic to work around the clock, opening envelopes, counting and counting, dedicated, diligent, untiring. Meanwhile, the president argued that these people whom we were seeing with our own eyes, thousands of them across the country, were all in on some magnificently engineered conspiracy to steal the election and oust him.
I spoke to a relative visiting from Iran, a man formidable in his years, about his thoughts when he heard the president's claim that election fraud was being committed in the United States. He laughed. "Impossible," he said. "In Iran, when we have elections, the government replaces entire ballot boxes. The whole box, physically. America is an established democracy. It has a history of functioning. Even when your 'supreme leader' throws doubt into the legitimacy of the process, they keep counting."
And counting. When it was announced that the math was clear, that former Vice President Joe Biden had won, one part of the world, international leaders who want to see democracy stay strong, rushed to congratulate him. Elsewhere, less so. In Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that this election was a "spectacle," "the ugly face of liberal democracy," evidence of the "political, civil & moral decline of the US regime."
Friends and family I spoke to after Election Day told me they'd become experts in how the Electoral College functions, and they tried to predict which states were likely to turn red or blue.
It was a spectacle, a strenuous test of our democracy, and at times it was ugly. But unlike Iran, burdened by morally bankrupt leaders who maintain their power through fake elections, systematic propaganda and the brutal oppression, imprisonment and murder of their own citizens, the democratic system of the United States allowed its citizens to face the ugliness and vote out their failed leader.
And America still stands, perhaps stronger than ever, as an example of how a democracy must proceed. This beautiful machine, constructed by the dreams of a radical people nearly 250 years ago, perfected and adjusted, is still going. That's the America that won out, at home and abroad. We have voted, America. It is, for all of us, a victory.