As part of the University of Alaska-Anchorage's 2018 Democracy and Civic Action Week, the ACLU of Alaska sponsored the first place prize of $500 for essays on the topic of "Is voting a privildge, a right, or a responsibility?"

From 76 entries, a panel of judges awarded the following essay the first place prize.

The ACLU of Alaska couldn't have asked for a work more fitting of our slogan "Vote Like Your Rights Depend On It." We are honored to share this moving piece with you here.


Ballots and Bullets


Phillip D. Granath

It’s not often in the span of a life that you can look back and find yourself standing at the crossroads of history, of a nation and of a people. But in early 2005 there I was, 22 years old, complaining about the heat and carrying a rifle, while the people of Northern Iraq prepared for their first democratic election since 1958. Saddam had held mock elections for years which boasted 100% participation and had of course resulted in his “Re-election” time and time again. But the might of the U.S. military toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003 and now, nearly two years later, it was up to the people of Iraq to decide just how the next chapter of their country’s story would read. The Kurdish people, having been displaced for years by Saddam, were now pouring back into Northern Iraq. They had been forced from their homes, hunted by Saddam’s forces and even gassed with chemical weapons. But the Kurds were not defeated, they were back and eager to have their voices heard. 

However, not all of their fellow Iraqis wanted the Kurds to have that voice and so the insurgency that had been turning our convoy routes into minefields and the Iraqi streets into battlefields were now turning their eyes towards the voting stations, especially in the Kurdish communities. They planted IEDs near the polling stations, drove car bombs into crowded Kurdish markets and threatened that anyone who participated would be killed. The U.S. forces did what we could, we shifted out focus to protecting the polling stations and patrolling the communities that were most at risk of attack, but the truth was that there was simply not enough of us to provide any real protection. The day of the elections came and the result was astounding. Iraqi’s lined the streets, men and women were eager to vote for the first time in their lifetimes. That day and for the days that followed, everywhere that we went Iraqis, both Kurdish and Arab alike would cheer and raise their index fingers showing us the blue smudge of ink on their index finger, an indication that they had voted. Though there were over a hundred attacks across the country that election day, the people reveled in their new-found freedom and a real sense of hope and optimism seemed to permeate everything. It’s a feeling that I wish every American could feel when they enter their own polling booths.

It’s easy to see that most Americans take their right to vote for granted, it’s something that most of us have always had and that most of us can’t even imagine being denied. It’s something I’ve taken for granted myself, in 2008 while deployed to Iraq for the third time, I had the opportunity to vote in the U.S. presidential election with a mail in ballot, but I didn’t. At the time I thought my lack of participation was a statement in itself, a lack of faith in the candidates that the system had provided. But I was wrong, your vote isn’t just for a person or a party or even an ideal. It’s a vote for democracy itself, it’s a vote for a system of debate and order in a world that is often ruled by hate and fear. Politics and parties do not matter, people and their ability to be heard do. As Americans we are fortunate enough to live in a place where this freedom is provided to us, we owe it to ourselves and all of those in the world that are denied this right to participate. We have a responsibility to go out and to vote.