Some parenting firsts are etched into memory.
Our daughter’s first word was “duck” because we went to a park with a duck pond so often. She loved her first day of preschool so much that she wanted to stay when it was time for pickup. I can vividly recall small details from her first birthday party, first airplane trip and first ride on her pink-and-purple Big Wheel tricycle.
A few of these memories crossed my mind as I drove her to the St. Louis County Board of Elections last month. She wore the “Vote” necklace I’d given her for her 18th birthday the week before.
I took a picture of her in line outside the building, and another while she waited inside for her ballot. The election officials clapped when I told them she was a first-timer. When I pulled out my phone to take a picture of her at the ballot box, she rolled her eyes. A poll worker told me to stop and put my phone away.
I waited until she was done to take another picture outside with her “I voted” sticker. I forced her to take a selfie with me in the car. Before we drove home, I told her that no matter what happens going forward, I wanted her to promise to never miss an opportunity to vote in her life.
I wonder if being the child of immigrants makes this responsibility feel so sacred to me. Maybe because I grew up knowing that my parents left behind everything familiar and beloved to them, I have taken each election as a chance to validate that sacrifice. In a country that doesn’t always feel accepting, each time I vote, I am reminded that I belong.
That my voice matters.
I’ll never forget the one time I was denied a ballot. It was more than 20 years ago in an off-cycle election in Missouri. I decided to go to my polling station after work. For whatever reason, I wasn’t on the rolls when they checked for my name, even though I had voted in previous elections. The woman working at that location suggested that I could drive to the county Board of Elections to try to sort it out. But the polls were about to close, and I knew I wouldn’t make it there in time.
I was devastated, walking out without having cast a ballot. It felt like I had been robbed.
The experience did teach me a lesson. Since that day, I’ve always voted first thing in the morning, or in-person absentee if I know I’ll be out of my jurisdiction on Election Day. This year, I double-checked my registration, and that of the two new voters in my household, multiple times.
My husband, who became an American citizen three years ago, has now also voted in his first presidential election. I drove him to the Board of Elections two weeks after he was discharged from the hospital after battling a severe COVID-19 infection. He took his oxygen tank with him, and I took just as many pictures of him in line as I had of my daughter.
I knew more first-time voters in this election than ever before. As I write this, I still don’t know the final outcome from the record-breaking turnout. The only thing we know for sure is that nearly half the country will be bitterly disappointed with however it ends up.
It’s been remarkable to see so many people determined to have their voice heard. But the long lines should also remind us that people should not have to wait for hours to exercise a basic, fundamental right.
I hope that each of those first-time voters felt the same addictive thrill that I did casting my first ballot.
Regardless of outcome, the message endures: You belong. Your voice matters.