It is impossible to know what it is like to be excluded until you are on the outside looking in. For years, that was me. I couldn’t vote.
We moved to the U.S. from the United Kingdom for a three-year job assignment in 1998. However, the job grew, our three boys settled into their schools, and I pursued a graduate degree. Life moved on. It took my eldest son, Harry, to motivate me and the rest of my family.
Harry turned 18 in 2011. Almost immediately he announced that he wanted to become a U.S. citizen. He wanted to vote in the 2012 presidential elections.
I have to take some credit for this. Over the previous 13 years, he had listened as I became more and more frustrated at sitting out the electoral process. I have always been interested in politics, whether it was canvassing at the age of 10, serving as president of the student body at university or leafleting our village for a local election with my baby in a backpack. It was hard for me to watch three presidential election cycles pass.
Harry got his wish and voted. In 2012, after some soul searching, I submitted my own citizenship application. At age 50, I became an American. I couldn’t wait to complete the voter registration form.
At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Durham, the naturalization ceremony is a moving combination of celebration and solemnity. The officer in charge congratulates the new citizens but also reminds them of the importance of being an active citizen. The first responsibility mentioned: voting. It is the single most important way to be part of the democratic process. I attend these ceremonies now as a member of the League of Women Voters. We register new voters there, and each ceremony is as moving as the last.
My first chance to vote came in 2013. It was an “off” year, so I voted in local elections. For many people that’s not worth showing up to the ballot. But with turnout typically low, I know that every vote can make a difference. Just 15 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2013 elections. In District A, the margin of victory was 250 votes. That’s like turning out your neighborhood to vote!
This year is also an “off” year. With candidates for city council and mayor in all Wake County municipalities, yours could be the vote that makes the difference.
In October, my youngest son will turn 18, and finally all five family members will be citizens and able to vote. With two university students in the house, it’s not always possible to vote in person. When Harry was studying abroad in Tanzania last fall, we had our first experience of absentee voting. He was able to cast his ballot ahead of time and then check online to see whether it had been received. He observed that it’s hard to research such a long ballot when the Internet is really slow! There was certainly no excuse for the rest of the family not to vote.
Local elections affect the areas closest to our daily lives: planning for growth; attracting businesses to the area; considerations regarding housing development, water quality and sewage systems; waste management and police and emergency services. The successful candidates will be making some important decisions over the next two years.
If you see me on Election Day you’ll understand why I’m smiling. I am happy to participate in our democracy.
Naomi Lambert, a graduate of Oxford and Duke universities, lives in Raleigh. She is a leader with the Wake County League of Women Voters.
Thursday to Oct. 3 at the Board of Elections office on Salisbury Street in Raleigh and from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 at the Herbert Young Center in Cary. More info: nando.com/2015 earlyvoting.