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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Reflections of a grateful voter
Hard-won citizenship makes it matter more
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Darlinne Kambwa, with her mom.
Darlinne Kambwa, with her mom.

With one whole election under my belt, I felt like a pro. On Nov. 2, I stood in front of a blue plastic voting booth in the library of Glendale Elementary School quickly skimming position, name, party affiliation, then filling in arrows. The entire process took about five minutes.

After feeding my ballot into the machine, I moved to the side of the room and waited for my mom to finish. I could see her taking her time, reading carefully, making sure she accurately filled in arrows.

My mom was being so cautious with the voting processes because it was her first time. She became a citizen last December after spending the last 20-some years as a permanent resident in the state of Wisconsin.

As I waited for her, I remembered what she told me just minutes before as we left her house: "Every vote helps. One adds up, then another, and another."

That's a good way to look at it. But I know most people don't see how their solitary vote can make a difference. Maybe that's why so many people don't vote.

But for my family it's different. And as I walked out of the little elementary school into the warm November sun, I reflected on why.

For most Americans, being a citizen is ingrained. It's something that goes back farther than they can remember. Becoming a citizen wasn't an option and choosing to do so didn't mean letting a piece of your culture go.

But that's how it was for my family. And I think that's why, unlike some citizens, we take the right to vote seriously.

When I was little, my mom would remind me how special it was that I was the first American in our family.

"You can be anything," she would say. "You could even be president." I think I knew from the beginning that I wasn't necessarily presidential material, but my mom's words resonated with me in a way that's hard to explain.

My family came to America in 1983, arriving in Milwaukee to one of the coldest winters my sisters can remember. They fled their native country of Angola, because what started as an independence movement morphed into a war.

I was the first American-born member of my family and, in 2008, I became the second member of my family to vote in the U.S. Nor was this a right my mother exercised in Angola.

"We didn't have the right to vote while the Portuguese were still ruling," my mom explained to me. "Even if we had, I was so young that it wouldn't have been on my mind."

Voting for Barack Obama was special for me and not just because he was the first black president. I understand and acknowledge that the United States has come a long way since slavery in terms of civil rights. But my family's history differs from that of most African Americans. Obama is, like me, the child of immigrants.

In December 2009, my mom, my oldest sister, her husband and I drove to downtown Milwaukee. We passed through a security checkpoint very similar to an airport's, complete with metal detector and conveyor-belt X-ray machine, and were directed to a second-floor waiting area. There, a couple dozen people nervously waited to hear their names called.

After weeks of studying, my mom's citizenship came down to seven questions. These included questions about the nation's geography, history, Constitution and system of government. She had to answer four of the seven correctly to pass. She did.

And so, on Nov. 2, my mother cast a vote as an American citizen for the first time. It meant a lot to her.

This election was equally important for me. I could see the risk many of my political beliefs were up against, and I hoped that my vote would help save them. (As a student weeks away from graduation, without any strong job prospects, health care is at the top of my list. Unfortunately, rolling back the reforms passed under Obama are at the top of another list - that of the Republicans.)

Yes, it was a disappointing election. Not many of the candidates I voted for won. As time passes, I can say that I don't regret voting in this election. Acceptance of democratic elections means accepting that your desired outcome might not be the actual outcome. If I hadn't voted I would've regretted it.

In the 2008 election, I felt like my vote counted for two - my own and my mom's. For future elections I'll have to continue to find my own motivation. If nothing else, voting gives me the right to complain.

Darlinne Kambwa, a former Isthmus intern, attends the UW-Madison.

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