Last Tuesday I went to my polling place and ended up voting not just in an attempt to alleviate the suffering in Iraq, but also alongside an Iraqi immigrant who fled his country after the first Gulf War and was casting his ballot as a U.S. citizen for the first time.
There are only two counties left in the state that still have poll voting, and King County is one of them. I've always preferred poll voting.
I remember the feeling of surprise the first time I voted in person, when the abstraction of the issues shifted, in the polling place, to the visceral reality of people of all ages and races and incomes amassed in some bureaucratic space of cinderblock and fluorescent lights, choosing who would represent them in government. Louis XIV's famous dictum (L'etat, c'est moi) had been inverted, and there in that humdrum environment we were all the state.
Years later, I am more cynical, more aware of how concentrations of power are sustained by maintaining the veneer of democracy, while voting is managed so that it cannot possibly, by itself, effect radical change. A combination of outright disenfranchisement, vote suppression, and the inordinate role of money conspires to limit the capacity of everyday people to challenge those who claim to represent them.
Yet even in a new Gilded Age, when so much of electoral politics is stage-managed by the wealthy, the popular desire for hope and change is hard to control, making it disruptive and potentially threatening. When people look around the polling place, they see where the ultimate source of power in our society resides.
Mine is in the first floor of a public housing project here in Seattle. For the first time in the five years I've been voting there, there was a line (10-15 people) to even get into the room where the voting takes place. Inside the room, there was another line of 10 people waiting for polling stations, and another five people finished voting who were waiting to turn in their votes.
I started a conversation with the man standing next to me. "This is my first time voting," he told me, saying that he had only recently become a citizen. English was clearly his second language. "Where are you from?" I asked. "Iraq," he said, "Babylon." He came to the United States after the first Gulf War, because of "father Bush," he said. He tells his family not to come to the United States, though, because of the cultural differences, because family doesn't mean as much here. He said he knew an old woman who came to the U.S. from Iraq to visit a friend of his -- she wanted to leave within three days, and died in the airport waiting to return.
"Have you been back to visit your family?" I asked. Yes, last year, he said, for the first time in 17 years. "Do you want to stay here?" No, he said, but the job situation in Iraq was not good. He was voting in our election, it seemed, so that he could end the occupation, so that he could return home. In the meantime, he was taking classes in math and English at a local community college, and worried he would be late if the line lasted too long.
"I will need help," he told me. I gave him instructions on which table to go to based on his voter registration card, showing him which precinct he was in. I went off to vote, and then, as I walked past him to turn my ballot, he stopped me. His reading skills were not great. He was confused by the various ballot initiatives, the charter amendments, the proliferation of issues totally unrelated to his reason for being there. "I want to vote Democrat," he told me. "Not Republican."
I looked around, wondering if helping him was ethical. So I decided to simply help him read the names of political parties. I told him that he didn't have to vote on all issues, that his vote would still count. "Oh," I added, "and when you see 'GOP Party,' that means Republicans." He filled in his bubbles, and I avoided telling him who to vote for, only pointing out the words Democrat and Republican.
When he was done, he asked, "Obama?" And I showed him where he had already voted, and assured him it would count. He smiled. I was touched. And felt something I guess I'll call hope.