Voter registration: making democracy democratic

    It’s Saturday, and I am a volunteering to register people to vote. Whenever I participate in politics on the human level, I become a bigger, better person. Neither rain nor sleet nor baking sun can keep me from doing my civic thing.

    As I arrive, my table partner Doug is helping a tiny, older woman with a floppy, flowered hat sign up. Seeing that she can barely write 4G, her apartment number, I offer to fill in the blanks for her. She is so relieved, she looks up at me. When I finish, I sign the space that says I helped Marie apply.

    A man strolling with his adult children stops to register his new address.

    I am proud to be an American, standing on the corner of 15th and Market in Philadelphia, watching potential voters go by. I live in a country with free, open elections. We can wear campaign buttons and post political slogans in public without fear of death. And we can encourage others to invoke their inalienable rights, unless, these days, they are poor, foreign-born or elderly and don’t have government-issued ID.

    A girl who turned 18 last week wants to register but doesn’t know the last four digits of her Social Security number, the alternative to a driver’s license. I suggest she take it home to complete, but Doug invites her to phone someone to unearth the number.

    As she dials, Doug whispers that, if folks leave with the papers, chances are slim they’ll mail them in. The girl hangs up and looks for the card in her wallet, where Mom said it was.

    Her girlfriend, still 17 but eager to engage, fills in a card to volunteer.

    This is a busy corner, across from City Hall, facing the subway entrance and the giant clothespin sculpture. Here, I value my college education, which enables me to read and write all by myself.

    Doug and I take turns approaching couples, teens with headsets, sightseeing families carrying city maps, aimless wanderers. They are the world. Some people quietly say thank you and reach for a clipboard and pen. Others stare blankly or grimace or turn aside. Two men pontificate that all elections are rigged, so no vote matters.

    One blank on the Pennsylvania Voter Registration form requests the applicant’s race. The concept of race troubles me unless it concerns running shoes. I believe we are all mostly alike — except for musical and ice cream tastes — but the rulers of my commonwealth want to differentiate us. The first time I see a young woman, apparently black, write “American” in that box, I smile.

    Three other voters write “American” in the box. I am white, and I vow to write “American,” too, the next time I have the chance.

    Marie from 4G drops by again, because she seems to have no destination, nowhere to hang out. I cherish my mental health, too.

    Doug excuses himself to help an unstrung nomadic woman leaning on the table. He calls the homeless outreach people, who come to collect her in an air-conditioned car. That’s news to me. I enter 215-232-1984 into my cellphone for future use. I’ve never before known what to do.

    Periodically, a man (never a woman) spends 10 minutes leaning on the pedestal of the clothespin. Each one eventually acknowledges to us that, yes, he is registered to vote; yes, at the correct address; and yes, he has documentation.

    One leaner makes me giggle a dozen times: Each time I say, “Register to vote?” he rhymes with “Register to smoke?” He is hawking single cigarettes from a pack of Marlboros, earning a dollar for each one. Maybe that’s illegal, but I admire his chutzpah.

    Registering voters — like checking on polling-place concerns for the Committee of Seventy on Election Day, like serving on jury duty — makes democracy democratic. Handing over cheap pens helps assure that government of, by and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

    That very morning, the Inquirer mentioned a Vietnamese immigrant who proudly became a United States citizen at age 102. I hope that he and his offspring visit my voter registration booth next time I’m on duty. I will be the happiest of Americans as I sign him up to vote.

    Susan Perloff is a Philadelphia writer. Reach her at writerphiladelphia.com.

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