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Today's vote will shape tomorrow

Usually when I vote, as I did on Monday, I take with me my ancestors — men who, for a brief period of time in Georgia after the Civil War, were granted the right that more than any other defines what being American is all about. And then it was snatched away from them and their descendants until well into the 20th century. Not until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nearly 100 years after blacks first voted in Georgia, was this power to participate in the democracy made real again. Then, if not entirely yanked away, it was jeopardized by a recent Supreme Court decision.

As Election Day approached, I knew I'd carry with me the ancestors and a kind of foreboding that they must have known in the late 1860s. I did not count on taking with me a new citizen, a Muslim American who emigrated from Pakistan nine years ago. Going to the poll with him, and witnessing his indescribable joy at casting a vote for president for the first time, renewed my own sagging enthusiasm.

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Let me tell you about Qamar, who will turn 40 in December. He came to this country "for a better future" after having studied psychology in college and working in his father's leather business. He has been driving a taxi for about five months; that's how we met. I was a fare, and we struck up a conversation about voting. He asked if he could accompany me when I planned to go, and on Monday he gladly gave up an hour or so of earning fares to join a record-setting number of Marylanders who are voting early.

"I'm making my memory. Oh, wow!" he exclaimed as he stood in line outside the administration building at Towson University.

He passed the citizenship test with a score of 92 percent, he said, after studying two hours a day for about four weeks, with his landlady quizzing him on questions from the study guide. He lived in South Carolina then and went alone to a federal office in Greer, S.C., to take the oath of citizenship with other recent immigrants. "I feel honored being a Muslim U.S. citizen," he told me en route to the poll. "I obey the Constitution. I obey the law. And now this is the time when I'm going to play my role."

Qamar notes that he entered the U.S. legally, became a permanent resident and then a citizen. Others should also follow the rules, he said. "Please come the legal way. Keep trying. Don't jump the [line], but never give up. Come into this land, the land of opportunity."

Like many of his friends, he said, he has found the political process in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world to be distasteful at times.

"I want to stay away from that mess," he said. He has been telling people that they don't have to get caught up in party politics. "I'm not voting for [a] party. I am picking a president of the United States under the Constitution."

He rejected Donald Trump. "One reason, how he runs his mouth. Second, he has no political experience. Simple." And Hillary Clinton? "She might make mistakes in her life, but she's got political experience. That's what we need."

For sure, scandal-mongering and down-in-the-gutter politicking make people want to steer clear of the process as much as any voter suppression we have witnessed in U.S. history, including the antics of the KKK of old. But show up we must — and in historic numbers. Despite the robust turnout so far, I am still hearing people say they are not sure they'll vote.

Qamar was practically giddy after he submitted his ballot to the scanning machine that read it and made his vote official. Those lofty words about freedom and equality had meaning now — and poll workers even thanked him for voting. The effort was much more valuable, he said, than the money he would have earned working instead.

Ultimately voting is not solely for our immediate self-interest but for the future we want to shape. Qamar hopes to bring his wife, their son and perhaps his parents to live in the U.S. in a year or so. He looks forward to the day his five-month-old son can cast a vote for president — perhaps in 2036. In addition to priceless memories, Qamar left the poll with a "FUTURE VOTER" sticker for his son.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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