I was asked to give up my citizenship for $14 million. Then I realized what being an American really means

LaVonne Roberts
·6-min read
In 2016, I simply took it for granted that Trump wouldn't win the presidencyREUTERS/Carlos Barria (REUTERS)
In 2016, I simply took it for granted that Trump wouldn't win the presidencyREUTERS/Carlos Barria (REUTERS)

Millions of Americans who can vote, don’t. I was eligible to vote for 39 years before I cast my first ballot.

I had many excuses, from living most of my adult life abroad to being too busy navigating life after a traumatic childhood without a support system. Additionally, I wasn't taught to vote at home, nor did my early education instill a sense of civic duty. I took my freedom for granted, and I rationalized ignoring a fundamental privilege — my right to engage in the democratic process.

Non-voting citizens constitute the most powerful group in American politics. In the 2016 elections, the 102.7 million no-shows vastly outnumbered the 62.9 million voters. During her speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention, former first lady Michelle Obama emphasized the high electoral stakes in November by pointing out the narrow margins that vaulted Donald Trump into the White House in 2016: "In one of the states that determined the outcome, the winning margin averaged out to just two votes per precinct — two votes," she said.

The first time I thought what it meant to be an American citizen was in 1999. After taking an internet company public, my husband and I netted a windfall. We were new millionaires living the American Dream. I'd spent the last few weeks paying off delinquent student loans from my many attempts to finish college and other debts. Life was good — better than good.

Not long after our IPO, my husband, a French national, asked me to meet him in our CPA's office, where he told me that if I renounced my American citizenship, we could keep the $14 million we owed in taxes from cashing stock. "You'd only be able to come back to the States a couple of weeks a year," our CPA said. "We'd set up residence in Switzerland," my husband added.

Sitting in a downtown high-rise in San Francisco, it felt like someone had hit the pause button on my life. I looked at our CPA, a man I hardly knew, wondering what he would do in my shoes. "There's no other country in the world that would allow a foreigner — like my husband, who isn’t an American citizen — to start a company without investing their own money and make millions," I said. “There’s nowhere I could live that would afford me the same opportunity.” Insisting on paying our taxes was my way of showing gratitude to a system that allowed a foreigner to reap its benefits.

A few years later, I overheard my husband saying to a friend that he'd be buried in France. I’d never thought about being buried anywhere other than America. Then, once again, I thought about what it meant to be a US citizen. I was much more American than I'd imagined. Still, I didn't fully appreciate my civic duty.

In 2016, middle-aged and divorced, I went to Bard College. I was taught to see beyond one perspective and was encouraged to understand others' viewpoints even when I disagreed. I learned to base my opinions on reason, not emotion, and how to research facts. I began to realize that my vote might matter. But, like many, I took it for granted that there was no way an egomaniac reality TV personality could become our president — so I didn't vote.

In class, the day after Trump was elected, a professor explained that in the election between George W Bush and Al Gore in 2000, Florida had to recount its votes once the polling ended. In the end, Bush won by 537 votes. That difference decided who became president of the United States. That day, the idea that my vote could actually make a difference took seed. I knew I needed to do more — I just needed to find my voice. In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I finished an MFA in nonfiction creative writing.

Data shows that the single most significant predictor of whether someone will vote is whether they hold a college degree. My newly acquired education liberated my belief system. It taught me there are no absolutes in an ever-expanding world of ideas, where an education bends toward openness rather than containment. It was there that I realized that shifting responsibility from a system designed to fail to the victims of that system was a very American thing to do. Blaming individuals for societal issues was an American pastime. It began to wear on me that my silence was worse than complacency — it was morally wrong, and I wanted to stand for things that mattered.

I avoided politics far too long. Learning that a local congressional candidate was the victim of a homophobic smear campaign compelled me to cast my first vote. Leaders of the College Democrats at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College manufactured a sexual misconduct scandal against Morse by claiming he used his position as a part-time lecturer to engage in inappropriate relationships with students. Copies of chats revealed members trying to entrap Morse unsuccessfully. In screenshots, one of the organizers suggested using the plot to win favor with Morse’s opponent. When the group could found no wrongdoing, they sent an accusatory letter anyway. By the time the New York Times reported the story, I knew it was time to come forward.

For presidential elections, only about 60 percent of voters turn out and only 40 percent for local elections. I wanted my vote to matter, especially on a local level, where most policy change happens. When I asked someone involved in Alex Morse’s campaign about the false allegations, she said, “Please keep asking questions – the only people who mind are those who don’t want you to know the truth. We cannot afford to continue to disengage from politics because we don't like it — if enough decent people get involved, then decency will prevail." In my case, the only thing worse than not voting would be to not talk about it. If even one person learned from my mistakes, imagine the difference that a vote could make.

Alex Morse won his first mayoral primary by one vote. That one vote lead to a decade of strong leadership by Morse in the city of Holyoke. Although he didn’t come out on top with his congressional bid this election cycle, my vote may be the deciding factor in whether or not Mayor Morse becomes Congressman Morse in two years. And in 32 days, I’ll cast my first presidential vote. My vote matters — and so does yours.