"Are you registered to vote?" I asked each person in front of Wal-Mart.
Most responded, "Yes, ma'am," but the number of ineligibles was notable. Some were from other states or countries, many studying at Duke or UNC. They offered genial explanations: "I'm registered in California." "I am from Germany." Many more were Latino or Asian and seemed reluctant to reply. With children in tow, they avoided my gaze, hung their heads and hurried past in silence.
I volunteered to register voters for the May 6 election. In my free moments, I reflected on such lofty themes as citizenship and political engagement. Cynical I may be, but deep down those civics lessons still resonate. Maybe we won't make a difference through our political system, but, if we don't try, we surely can't.
Most people at Wal-Mart seemed to be trying, even if they'd given up in the past. Maybe they were thinking, "Well, look what not trying has given us." A few admitted they didn't register because they don't want to do jury duty. Hard to believe, but millions of people would be thrilled to serve on a jury, just to get to vote on something. Isn't it nonsensical to relinquish one right in order to avoid exercising another? Folks in Zimbabwe, Haiti or Tibet would be puzzled.
I love registering first-time voters. One was a smiling, 25-year-young man in a baseball cap and T-shirt heralding a college baseball team. He turned serious as I explained the form. Suddenly he reached for his wallet.
"Is there a fee?" he asked. Smiling, I told him, "No, there's no fee. It's your right as a citizen." He stood tall for a moment, nodded thoughtfully and completed the form. He seemed to mature right before my eyes.
Later, a woman exiting the Wal-Mart approached me.
"I overhead your exchange with that young man," she said. "It seems to me that anyone who thinks you have to pay shouldn't be allowed to vote!"
Dumbfounded, I managed a calm voice.
"Some people insist they can vote with just a driver's license. Should we keep them from voting?"
This gave her pause, but I doubted I had altered her view. Woe are we, I thought, but I will always protect her right to vote.
Another first-timer was a tall man in his early 40s. He explained he couldn't vote.
"Felon," he admitted in a hushed voice.
"You still may be eligible," I explained. "If you've completed your time, including parole or probation."
"Yeah," he said. "Twenty years ago."
He still seemed suspicious, so I grabbed an elections board flier that I had with me: "you've been locked up. don't be locked out!" I read aloud the pertinent section and looked up. His wide grin was punctuated by two glittering gold teeth. Then he completed the form and handed it back. With a new spring in his step, he headed into the Wal-Mart. Suddenly he turned and threw his long arms in the air.
"I've never voted before!" He was still smiling and glittering.