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It was hours before dawn when I awoke, but I was not tired. There was an almost palpable sense of apprehension and excitement spreading throughout the country, and I felt a wave of it hit me as I stepped out the door. It was dark, but the streetlights cast a yellow glow over the city, making it feel as bright as day.
That was November 4, 2008 – the day of the presidential election. I had signed up months before to work as an election judge at the polling station in my precinct. My responsibilities, I knew, would include working a fifteen-hour day, posting signs and setting up equipment, helping voters, sending in votes, and signing dozens of forms. I had already been to several hours worth of training to prepare for that day. At that point, I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience, but I had no idea how much it would influence my thoughts and interests.
I arrived just before five in the morning. Several old women who had been working at elections for years were already there, grumbling about the time, but still excited. I ran around the hall taping up signs and unfolding heavy voting booths. Just before seven, all of us sat down at our tables and waited for the doors to open. As soon as the clock ticked to seven, the doors were flung open, and lines of citizens streamed in, all wanting to cast their vote before work that day. I got the stack of ballots ready as they approached, and prepared for a very long day.
Another group of voters came by around lunchtime and another just before the polls closed; in between, there was a slow but steady stream of citizens. Despite long periods of sitting between voters, the day went by quickly. Soon night had fallen and the TVs were turned on, broadcasting various news channels. I watched the East Coast results come in as the clock counted down the last few seconds until the polls closed. Immediately the other workers and I began breaking down the booths and machinery, checking numbers and preparing to send the votes in, and signing or initialing forms. We were all in a hurry to leave – not because we were tired, but because we all wanted to witness firsthand the results of the election.
The instant the last form was signed and everything was done, I grabbed my bag and dashed out the door. It was over a mile to the University of Chicago Reynold’s Club where my friends and family were waiting, but I sprinted the entire way. The halls were packed so tightly with people that I could barely squeeze past to the front. I saw my friends there, sitting on the floor in front of a giant screen that was broadcasting the results as they came in. Anderson Cooper’s voice thundered down at us through the speakers as we waited in tense anticipation. It wasn’t long before Barack Obama was declared the winner, and the entire room screamed and cheered.
What I realized that night, as the hall around me roared with excitement, was how much of an effect the government, or any citizen could potentially have on the country and world. While that realization might intimidate some people, it had the opposite effect on me. It suddenly became clear to me how much there is left for all of us to do in order to make this world what it ought to be. I realized that, if I work hard enough, I can help implement the changes that are important to me – poverty, for example, can be lessened. No one should go hungry, especially in this country. People should not have fewer opportunities due to financial problems. No family should have to live without any access to medical care.
I want to be a part of the solution to those problems. Election night helped me realize that I have the potential to do that. Rather than just worry about the issues that bother me, I can, and should, stand up and make a difference. Although it may be a long time before I am in a position to have a real influence, I am not wasting any time. I am still involved with the program that first got me the job as an election judge, called the Mikva Challenge. I am learning as much as I can about government, and staying updated with the news. I have also signed up to work as an election judge in the primaries next February, and I have volunteered to help with the primary campaigns of two local candidates. I am looking forward to involving myself actively in my community this year and in years to come.
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