Fri04182014

Op-ed: Signing up to speak your mind

In mid-October, I spent a couple of hours at Foothill College helping with a voter registration project as part of a campus-sponsored Political Awareness Day. The Foothill College Student Activities group had set up tables covered with red cloths and decked with American flags and sparkly eye-catchers. There was a DJ, there was music, there was free food, there was a raffle based on submitting a response to the meme “Why I Vote.” There were tables staffed by Republicans, by Democrats, by the League of Women Voters, by the American Association of University Women and by proponents and opponents of various propositions. Footsie, the college’s Owl mascot, appeared with a sign on his tummy saying “Your Vote Counts.”

I dressed for the occasion in a sweatshirt with an American flag motif, big dangly red-white-and-blue hoop earrings and a hat with a red-white-and-blue bandana band. Somehow, when I am in costume or uniform, I am a lot freer to be outgoing and assertive, unlike my normal staid self. My job was to stand in the path between the parking lot, the gym and the cafeteria and query each passerby or group: “Miss/Sir/Ladies/Gentlemen/Young People – are you registered to vote?” I had a wonderful time.

The students who were registered invariably responded with a wide smile, a thumbs-up, and a hearty “Yes, ma’am!” One stalwart young man even agreed to be a poster boy and recruiter for the registration effort, allowing me to tape a “Register Today to Vote!” sign to his broad chest and smilingly approaching the cutest female passersby to inquire about their registration status.

The students who were interested but not registered looked sheepish and allowed their arms to be twisted into coming over to the table and filling out the intimidating-looking voter registration form.

The students who were interested but not eligible (too young, or international) smiled too, and excused themselves. I had some interesting exchanges with some of the international students about the voter registration process, about how American politics works, about how our government finances education, health care and wars as contrasted with Sweden or Brazil or Kenya. I got to practice saying “Excuse me for troubling you” and “Welcome to the U.S.!” in my fragile French and Chinese.

Only a few students brushed past me with a “Maybe later, I have to get to class,” “I’m late already,” “I’m meeting someone” or, worst, “I’m not interested in voting.” Interestingly, these were the ones who did not smile or make eye contact with me if they could help it. Were they feeling guilty because they knew they were shirking? Or just resenting being hassled?

What it came down to is that being able to vote, being able to speak your mind and state your preference, is a joyous thing. Why would anyone not want to do it? On the other hand, in some countries one is required to vote – perhaps we should be willing also to celebrate the freedom to be noncommittal.

On this day after Election Tuesday, let us at least commit to living the best we can with freedom’s consequences.

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