11/04/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ahmed at the Polling Place

This originally appeared on Joel Hirst's Blog

Yesterday the ground moved. The tectonic plate that is the American geopolitical landscape shifted. People are talking in high pitched squeals about tsunamis, or earthquakes, or hurricanes. They are throwing around words like historic, unprecedented and amazing. They speak histrionically in familiar terms about important names like Reid, Pelosi, Obama and O'Donnell.

I'd like to talk about Ahmed.

Yesterday, I had the honor of voting for my preferred candidate in freedom and peace, and then serving my party in the evening as a poll watcher. Important, inglorious jobs that are the grass roots of our democratic system. One of my duties was to mark off names of the voters, one-by-one as they came through, for use in the future to know who are the likely voters. For somebody who has studied (and worked on) democracy for so many years, this simple act held a special meaning. We talk about percentages, about perceptions, about voter turnout, and about the electorate in broad, sweeping terms of generalities. Yet this simple task, of looking each voter in the eye, smiling at them and listening carefully for their name so I could find them on the clipboard and place my little mark filled me with wonder. And out of the hundreds of names that evening, I especially remember Ahmed. I don't know where he was from, and wouldn't reveal his last name even if I remembered it. He could have been a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, or maybe an immigrant from Chad. Maybe he was from the southern part of Egypt where there remains to this day a large Nubian community. It didn't matter; he is now from America. He approached the table, a sheepish grin on his face and his ID firmly gripped between his fingers, and he repeated proudly his name.

And there, in that converted gymnasium in a middle school on a quiet Virginia street -- and at that very moment in time, with the jockeying for power, the stunning use of millions of dollars, the terrible television attack adds violently besmirching hard-won reputations and the scheming of the gerrymanders all came crashing together -- I ran headlong into the proud smile and uplifted gaze of Ahmed. Standing there patiently, he received his go ahead, his four digit code and proceeded to cast his vote.

Naturally, I don't know who he voted for. Whoever it was, he had his reasons. He had made up his mind in his own way, for the candidate that best defended the interests that he judged as most central to his search for a life without extremes and in peace. You see this act, beautiful in its simplicity, reminded me why people come to America. Wherever Ahmed was originally from, I'm pretty confident in my declaration that there, his approval was not so anxiously sought, or so freely given. Maybe he would have had to be careful to hide his intentions, maybe he would be "otherwise engaged" and not vote at all, so as not to place himself in a dangerous situation. Maybe he would vote for who he was told, knowing it was safer that way. Maybe he thought that voting really didn't make that much of a difference anyway.

But this is America. Here, the process matters. Here, those with loud names must, at least occasionally, seek out those with quiet smiles for approval. And here the greatest of these learn quickly that to continue to be the masters of the universe, they must ask our permission and seek our blessing. And this is why we are different. Because we all share a sacred secret. We know that for those with the intention to rule, they must come through us. Before they make billion dollar decisions, send soldiers to far away lands or pass earthshaking laws, they must first come through we the people, people across America like Ahmed with his ID and me with my clipboard.

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