UAA student Phillip Granath’s award-winning essay “Bullets and Ballots: Voting Is Our Responsibility” was featured on the Forbes magazine website. The English major won an essay contest put on during UAA’s inaugural Democracy and Civic Action Week.
Contestants had to respond to the question: Is voting a privilege, a right or responsibility? Granath argued for responsibility, drawing from his experiences in Iraq as a bomb technician for the U.S. Air Force.
“In 2004, I got to be there [in Iraq] when an entire nation went to the polls for the first time in over 50 years,” Granath said.
Roads were shut down for two days leading up to event due to fear of bomb attacks; and yet, the turnout was “overwhelming,” Granath remembers.
“There were over 100 attacks that day with over 40 people killed, and people were still coming out to vote,” Granath said.
Everywhere Granath went in the following days, people would hold up their stained fingers to show that they had voted.
“It became a symbol for them,” Granath said.
The elections took place in the last weeks of his deployment in Iraq. He left with the feeling they had accomplished something, Granath said, but it was not until years later that he realized the significance of his experience.
“At the time, it didn’t have that much of an impact… I had a lot of other things on my mind,” Granath said.
It was the first time being deployed for the then 22-year-old. When he went back to Iraq four years later, he decided not to use his absentee ballot for the presidential elections.
“I had the opportunity – I could have filled it out, I could have mailed it, but I didn’t… I was upset at the system,” Granath said. “I look back now and realize that this is completely wrong… In America, we’ve always had the ability to go out and vote as long as we can remember – so we just take it for granted. It’s not the same everywhere.”
Granath changed his perspective of voting reflecting on his experiences in Iraq 14 years ago.
“One of the things I realized the more I thought about it was I just wish that all the people that go out and vote… could even just have a shred of that type of pride in getting a say,” Granath said. “People fight, people risk their lives to be able to go out and have the opportunity to vote in free election. We’re very fortunate.”
Granath first learned about the essay contest in his public rhetoric class. As soon as he heard the prompt, he already knew how he would respond to it if he was to write it.
He first felt like he was “taking advantage” of memories which also belong to his fellow veterans. Granath’s wife convinced him to bring his ideas to paper.
“She pointed out that those are my memories, too… [She said,] ‘And if you don’t talk about them, nobody else is going to,’” Granath said.
English professor Jacqueline Cason organized the essay contest, which was open to both high school and college students. There were more than 100 submissions for the contest. She thinks that Democracy and Civic Action is going to develop into an annual tradition.
“We knew that it was going to be an election year with the midterms coming up … and thought that [the prompt] would resonate with people,” Cason said. “But I think it is something that could work every year.”
The goal of the contest was to help people find their voice, Cason explained.
“Voting is one thing, but in many ways that’s a threshold activity. We were hoping that by getting people across that threshold and thinking about voting that they actually begin to think about a lot more – what their community means to them and what they care about – and that they would resolve to speak up,” Cason said.
She recruited a “diverse group” of people from the community as judges for the contest.
Judges included Lourdes Linato-Crawford, president of Bridge Builders Anchorage, and George Martinez, special assistant to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
UAA student Nicholas Schwantes won the Informed Voter Award; Amber Brady from Eagle River High School won the Youth Voice Award in the high school division of the contest. Both received prizes of $250, respectively.
Granath received a prize of $500 in addition to having his essay published by Forbes. His full essay can be found on the website of Forbes magazine, forbes.com.