A Voter Registration Mission In Baghdad

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Sgt. Asa Rubman is a paralegal serving with the armed forces in Iraq — and he's organized a get-out-the-vote drive on his base in southern Baghdad. Capt. Nate Rawlings, a regular Day To Day contributor, tells us about Sgt. Rubman.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, how two stick figures and a five-letter word landed Seth Rogan's new film in hot water.

CHADWICK: First, we've been hearing a lot about undecided voters who may go uncertain into the booth. For Americans in Iraq, things are a little more complicated. Army Captain Nate Rawlings is a regular contributor to Day to Day from his post in southern Baghdad with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. Nate, welcome back to Day to Day. And before we get to the process of voting, I want to ask - the economy, you know, has really dominated the story of the politics here for the last month and even longer, not so much about Iraq. How did the troops feel about that?

Captain NATE RAWLINGS (1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, U.S. Army): We've been following the process of the economy pretty much in real time. We can go on to Yahoo! Finance and we can see what's happening. People here are just as concerned as everyone in the United States, seeing some of their savings that they've invested, their retirement accounts dwindle. But one of the nice things about being over here is that we know we're going to be here for a set period of time, and so we can just ride out the wave and hopefully it will be a little better by the time we come home.

CHADWICK: Well, for you, that period of time includes the election. What did you have to do to vote?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, my process - I wrote in and requested an absentee ballot from my home election board, and then they were able to send that to me here. And then I voted by absentee ballot and sent that in about three weeks ago.

CHADWICK: You file stories and you answer questions at npr.org from our listeners, and you've got one up today about a sergeant there with you who helps register people right there. I guess it's kind of hobby of his. He is interested in it. His name is Sergeant Asa Rubman. He's there with you?

Capt. RAWLINGS: Yes, he is with me. Sergeant Rubman has been our legal clerk for our battalion for a little over two years.

CHADWICK: Let me talk to Sergeant Rubman there, if I could.

Sergeant ASA RUBMAN (Paralegal, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, U.S. Army): Yes, sir.

CHADWICK: Hi, Sergeant Rubman. How did you get so interested in registering people to vote?

Sgt. RUBMAN: Well, honestly it started because I'd sent out for my absentee ballot, I think, back in May, and I guess I was just getting a little bit impatient that it hadn't showed up. I wasn't really sure about the timeframe when they're going to mail things out. So, I was reading on the Federal Voting Assistance page about how to do the write-in ballot. So, I figured, well, I'll do it for myself and for some other people.

CHADWICK: So, you figured out how to do all this online, and how many people have you helped register online there?

Sgt. RUBMAN: We weren't registering them. Everyone that came by, through us, over about 550 to 600 people, they are already registered to vote. What we (unintelligible) providing them the write-in ballots so they could actually vote for the president.

CHADWICK: You're not advocating one candidate or another? This is just simple kind of open civics? We're going to help you vote?

Sgt. RUBMAN: That's exactly right, and there was no partisan material at the table. We actually provided the information papers from the League of Women Voters, I think, was one of the websites. We also got one that just listed off, you know, this is the candidate. This is his vice-presidential candidate. This is the party. Because a lot of people weren't sure about spelling or the names. And we also had CNN running in the background almost 24 hours a day in the channel. So, we just gave them the opportunity to vote and said here's how you do it.

CHADWICK: And you've gotten almost 600 people to vote?

Sgt. RUBMAN: That's correct, sir.

CHADWICK: And these are...

Sgt. RUBMAN: And I really believe that those were 600 people that wouldn't have voted because of not having enough time or not remembering to do it. So, I think that's 600 more votes that are going to go towards the election.

CHADWICK: These are all soldiers or some civilian contractors you meet there, or who?

Sgt. RUBMAN: The majority were soldiers, soldiers and airmen. And then we had, you know, some civilians as well. And there is a 60 year-old man from Texas who had never voted, and this is the first time he ever had the time, that someone sat down with him and explained to him how to vote. There was a former Greek citizen who naturalized in the U.S., who is talking about he lived under, you know, tyranny and how he was just proud to be able to exercise rights given to him by a country. It was great across the board.

CHADWICK: All these people wanted to vote. Could I hear your pitch to maybe people who just sort of noticed you're there in the chow hall and say, hey, what are you doing?

Sgt. RUBMAN: Well, really the pitch was, hey, would you like to vote? And they're like, no, I'm already registered. And then, of course, I would come back by saying, well, no, I know you're already registered, but this is to actually cast your ballot. And most people would say, oh, I'm going to wait on my absentee ballot. So, I said, well, this is kind of a cover-your-so-to-speak for your votes. Because worst case, you just wasted ten minutes of your time. Best case, you just voted for president. And once they've heard that, they're like, yeah, I guess you're right.

CHADWICK: Sergeant Asa Rubman with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division. He's in southern Baghdad. We also heard from our friend Captain Nate Rawlings there. Thanks to both of you. Sergeant, thank you and congratulations on all you've done there.

Capt. RAWLINGS: Thank you, sir.

CHADWICK: And you can read more about Sergeant Rubman and send Captain Rawlings a question about his life in Iraq. Go to npr.org/nate.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: We've got more in a moment on Day to Day.

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Essay: Soldier Inspires Voters On U.S. Base In Iraq

Sgt. Asa Rubman

Sgt. Asa Rubman recently set up a voting drive in his base's dining facility, helping nearly 600 soldiers, airmen and civilian contractors to vote. Courtesy Nate Rawlings hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Nate Rawlings

The Form

The Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot is a means to register and vote for military personnel living abroad. You can find the form here. More information about qualifications and other methods to vote absentee are available here.

Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions

Do you have a question about life in Iraq? You can send your inquiries to Capt. Nate Rawlings through this form or by posting a comment at the bottom of this page.

In 2000, as a freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Asa Rubman made it his New Year's resolution to register 10 first-time voters.

"It was easier than losing 10 pounds, and I thought that would mean something important," Rubman, now a sergeant in the U.S. Army, recently told me in his office at Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad.

Rubman is serving his second tour as a paralegal for the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, and he has served as the legal clerk for my battalion for more than two years. Worried that his absentee ballot would not arrive at the base in Iraq in time to affect the election, he researched the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot and discovered he could vote any time by simply printing and filling out the requisite forms from the Internet.

"Basically, I just didn't trust the postal system to deliver my absentee ballot here in time to fill it out and return it to the States before the election was over," Rubman explained.

One of the biggest difficulties facing service members is time. Many local election boards mail absentee ballots up to a month before the election; however, if the ballot is lost or delayed in the mail, the delay — combined with the roughly two weeks required for some mail to reach the United States — can prevent the ballot from reaching the election board before the Nov. 4 voting date.

"I know that they count the absentee votes in the weeks after the election, but I wanted to make sure my vote counted before the outcome was decided," Rubman said.

While researching the write-in process, Rubman discovered it was possible to simultaneously register and vote using the same form. He set up a voting drive in the base's dining facility to make sure the 600 soldiers, airmen and civilian contractors were registered to vote. About 5 percent of his colleagues registered and voted simultaneously.

Many were unregistered and were voting for the first time.

"I explained to people that it was crucial to be involved in the process, and this was a cover-your-ass ballot," Rubman explained. "Worst case, you spend five minutes. Best case, you vote."

Among those voting for the first time was a civilian contractor who was born in Greece and had lived under a dictatorship for a period of time.

"He was really happy to vote and kept talking about how wonderful it was to be able to pick your leaders," Rubman recalled.

Rubman also assisted an Army captain who became a naturalized citizen shortly before deploying. "We registered him in Texas, and he'll vote for the first time from a combat zone."

Rubman enlisted the help of his fellow paralegals to assist the troops with filling out the forms properly. For nearly a week, they devoted three hours at every mealtime and then worked long past midnight to complete the work they had postponed in order to staff the voting drive. In every case, Rubman ensured that the individuals completing the voting forms carried the forms to the base post office themselves, both to ensure the integrity of the process and to encourage the troops to take ownership of their vote.

"Many soldiers questioned the impact of a single vote in such a large election. I explained to them that it's incredibly important to vote," Rubman said. "I gave a brief explanation of the Electoral College and made sure they understood that the state will go with a simple majority. What if you're that one vote that pushes your state to the other side? Then all of the electoral votes will swing to that side."

While many of the troops were familiar with the candidates, others had questions about the individuals on the ballot. Rubman strictly prohibited anyone from attempting to influence the voters.

"Some of the soldiers voted based on the pictures on the forms," Rubman said.

Spearheading a voting drive in a combat zone fits Rubman's dedication to contributing to the political process and reveals the interest in government that he brought with him in his unusual route to the military.

Rubman's father, Andrew, "a real hippie," according to his son, paid his way overseas by working on a Russian freighter and made his way to Israel in the early 1970s. It was there that he met Rubman's mother, Talia. The two were married and returned to the United States.

Andrew, a physician specializing in complementary medicine, interned with Dr. Robert Atkins, the creator of the Atkins diet, in New York City before moving his family to Watertown, Conn.

Sgt. Rubman graduated from the Taft School in Watertown, then earned a dual degree in political science and Middle Eastern religions at Lehigh University. After joining the Army, he studied Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, an elite language training center for exceptionally talented soldiers.

After completing this tour in Iraq, Rubman will to apply to graduate school at the University of Washington, where he intends to earn a law degree and master's degree in Middle Eastern studies. He hopes to return to the region, advising companies on legal matters in Middle Eastern countries.

Should he find himself abroad during another election, he will have no problem voting, and he will no doubt inspire other American expatriates to vote as well.

Do you have a question for Capt. Nate Rawlings about life in Iraq? You can send him one through this form or by posting it in the comments section below.

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