Many years ago when I was a 20-year-old sailor I found myself in a small country on the other side of the world. The ship I was on had just pulled into port. I strolled down a dusty road in the middle of a remote town when I came across a disturbance. There was a group of people waiting in a line with another group yelling at them. I was intrigued so I went for a closer look. I could see that each person in line was carrying a small piece of paper. Some of the men had bruises on their faces; some were bleeding. I noticed that walking up and down the line were a type of military police. They would grab the papers from the men, read them, then sometimes they would begin shouting at them and hitting them with bamboo canes.
My curiosity got the best of me. I could not figure out what these men were doing; why they were just taking the beating and not fighting back. It took me awhile but I finally found someone to ask who spoke English. This older gentleman explained there was a small election being held that day. Not a big one, just local matters, and also picking a new village leader, equivalent to what we would call a mayor.
The men who were standing in line were holding their ballets. They were required to be filled out in advance before coming to vote. The local police were allowed to check the ballots. They could not stop them from voting, but they could beat on them and try to intimidate them into leaving. The man I was speaking with explained to me that once you have your ballet and get in line, if you leave for any reason you can not get back in line.
I sat there and watched this for a while. Some of the men could barely stand — they had been beaten so hard — but still they did not leave. They were willing to take whatever beatings they had to cast their vote. One of the men had a friend who was unconscious who he was helping hold up, just in the off chance he came to before they reached the end of the line when it was time to vote.
As I watched this injustice unfold in front of me I realized one thing: I had never voted in my life. I was only 20 years old, but two election years had passed me by. These men were willing to risk their well-being to cast a vote in a small-town election. Yet in my country the election board was willing to deliver me a ballet in the mail or provide me with a local safe place to cast my vote. No one would hit me, or even scream at me at the ballet box. It simply would not be allowed.
Why is it that we live in a country where we the people are allowed to cast a vote, yet so few of us participate? The numbers are even worse on non-presidential elections. Sometimes the local elections we hold every year in our towns will affect us more than the national elections.
I always think about that little sticker the precinct workers give voters at the polling stations. It’s just a silly thing, really, but it means a lot.
I’m always sad by the end of Election Day when my little sticker is worn out and I have to throw it away. I sometimes wish it would last as long as my vote. I wish I could wear it proudly all year. Then, when I hear someone complaining about the conditions of their city or state I could check for their sticker. If I didn’t see one I could ask them, “If you care so much about this cause, why didn’t you vote?”
I think about those men in that tiny village all those years ago. I wondered how they would feel to see so many of us take for granted something that meant so much to them. I wonder how they knew the importance of their vote. There were no stickers handed out in those villages. No one was there to thank them for their vote. Some of those men will feel their beatings for the rest of their lives. Years later as they work to improve their tiny part of the world, their kids can ask them, “What did you do to make my life better, Dad? What were you willing to risk?”
Those men can reply, “I risked everything, and I have the scars to prove it.”