It's no secret that Americans aren't big on voting. The results of a long-ago poll on voter apathy have stayed with me over the years. People said things like:
"Nothing I do makes a difference."
"The candidates are all liars, anyway. They don't care about issues."
"It's all about getting elected."
At election time, I do sometimes find myself bemoaning how I haven't had time to learn about the issues, and I'm not really sure about the candidates. I, too, can find excuses not to vote. Or at least I could, until a friend's husband became an American citizen four years ago and made me rethink my laziness.
When I met my friend Gina for coffee the morning of the 1996 presidential election, she was smiling from ear to ear. Her husband, Rao, who's from India, had become a US citizen days earlier.
"You should see him," she marveled. "He was walking around singing 'You're a Grand Old Flag' this morning. He bought a red, white, and blue-striped tie to wear to work today, and he bought me socks with a flag on them."
She laughed on, telling me Rao was hoping to buy something patriotic for the baby, too, but he couldn't find anything.
"He's prouder than a kid who got all A's on his report card. He bought red, white, and blue cupcakes, and he got out the red, white, and blue paper plates and cups from the Fourth of July. He even hung out a flag. He is just so into being able to vote," she said. I knew Rao was a pretty sentimental guy, but somehow I hadn't pictured him in this light.
"Today," she bubbled on, "he asked me if I knew who my congressman was. When I said no, he lectured me on our system of government. He knew more than I did!"
She explained that even during local elections, before Rao could vote, he wanted to study the sample ballot.
In his excitement on election day 1996, Rao quizzed Gina about what it's like in the voting booth, and if he could bring the baby in. He wanted to know if anyone ever tries to cheat and vote twice.
"Over the weekend I heard him asking our neighbors who they were voting for," Gina said, cringing. "When I got him aside, I told him it might be OK to discuss the issues, but people might not want to broadcast who they're voting for."
Rao decided he wanted to make election night a tradition - go out to dinner afterward and celebrate every time they vote.
As Nov. 7 approaches, I think about Rao's eagerness to vote. I could see how he'd want to be a part of our democratic process.
There are a million excuses not to vote. But when "old citizens" start taking voting for granted, there are plenty of new citizens like Rao to remind us what it's all about.
Patricia R. Olsen is a freelance writer.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society