American At Last: My First Time Voting As A Citizen

The following article was submitted by Dee McCarthy-Dillon, an Irish immigrant who wanted to share her joy at achieving something so many of us take for granted: Being a citizen and voting in an American election: 

I’ll be 40 in a few weeks and in those 39 plus years I’ve only ever voted thrice. Now, this is in no way reflective of my lack of political interest or a general apathy towards my civic duty. In fact, I have been itching to be able to vote since I emigrated from Ireland in 1998 at the age of 23. The citizenship process isn’t quite as smooth and fluid as Fox News would have you believe (shocker, I know). As emigration stories go though, mine was pretty uneventful. I didn’t have to scramble over fences and slog through a river. I fully admit and acknowledge being white and English speaking was a huge advantage, as was applying before 2001.

I married a US citizen, was granted temporary residency, then permanent residency. I worked, paid taxes, popped out a few shiny new American babies and all in the order I was expected to.

Surely citizenship was next on the cards?

Thing is, there are hefty fees that accompany every hiccup in the emigrant process. Every green card renewal, every time you ask for a copy of a lost document, etc. etc. costs not a small amount of money. I watched the fee’s double and then triple in this new and scary post 9/11 society. Hey, someone has to fund Homeland Security.

Today USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Service) is one of the few Federal government departments that is financially self sufficient, even during a Government shutdown. Why? Fees and lots of them, that’s why. You have to clutch at the irony that an entire Federal department is funded by dirty filthy immigrants.

And that’s what slowed me down, finding the almost $800 to get my final immigration form and application in. By the time I took my test (which was essentially a nice chat with Susan. Susan asked for an Irish soda bread recipe. I liked Susan), and took my oath it was March 2012, 14 years since I just fell off the boat. OK, I confess: It was a 747.

I hadn’t been able to vote in those 14 years; not even in Ireland, which doesn’t offer the option to vote in abstention, (another grumble for another day). For that decade and a half I persisted in this foggy political limbo; not really a citizen of anywhere and certainly not represented anywhere.

I genuinely didn’t realize how disenfranchised I had been until the day of my citizenship ceremony. My green card was unceremoniously taken from me and dropped in a blue bucket at the agent’s feet.

During the swearing in process there is this bizarre space between then and when you receive your Naturalization Certificate. I can only describe that half an hour as uneasy panic. That green card was your lifeline, your golden ticket for the last 14 years and some sour faced dumpy looking bureaucrat just plopped it into a Rubbermaid bin.

Yet, the panic was short lived and an hour later I emerged with all the other beaming new citizens, a Naturalized American, no longer a 2nd class subcategory where my taxes were acceptable but my vote snubbed. But most importantly, it was an election year. I soaked up the thrill of it all like a sponge. For the first time I felt I could render my political thoughts freely without reproach, without the all too familiar message: “You’re not even an American, so your opinion doesn’t really matter.”

A short 8 months later, there I was outside the local library, availing myself of early voting and hopping from toe to toe, trying to ward off an unusually chilly Georgia morning. People chatted and bantered. Clearly these people were ready and eager to vote. After all, they were here a good week before the General Election itself.

I showed my ID, (remember Georgia is a Red State) went to my booth and inserted my yellow plastic card. I hesitantly started tapping at the screen, half expecting someone to pull out a megaphone and scream “Stop her, she’s a fraud, she’s never even voted before.”

No one did.

I completed my ballot, turned in my yellow card and was gifted my first ever “I Voted” sticker. I mumbled to the gray haired lady sitting delicately in her cushioned chair this was my first time voting as I was a new citizen. “Well, bless your heart,” she sang in a way only a gray-haired southern lady can do and mean it. “Do you have kids?” “Three,” I replied, and she stuffed several more stickers into my hands.

In reality, my vote didn’t actually do much that day. Georgia carried Mitt Romney and pretty much all the other names on the ballot were Republicans running unopposed or Democrats that didn’t stand a chance against a post-Karl Rove southern conservative age.

In hindsight, though, how my vote affected the broader picture of political momentum didn’t really matter. What mattered was that finally, after 14 years, I had a voice; I had the right to choose representation and I had three new “I Voted” stickers sitting in my pocket to be delivered home.