MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I am Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, getting your kids involved in politics, it's our weekly parenting segment, and that's coming up in just a few minutes.
But first, today is election day, and as people head to the polls, we wanted to talk to people who are casting their vote today first time, whether they've just come of age or gotten a citizenship or just never voted before. So we've convened a roundtable to talk about the experience of being a first-time voter.
Joining us from Atlanta is Ara Alan, a Kurdish-American who just became a citizen this year. Charles Badger is a sophomore at Berea College joining us from Lexington, Kentucky. He just became old enough to vote in this election. And Hasan Zarif has a criminal record. He is now a minister, as well as a reentry coordinator for Goodwill in Richmond, Virginia. Minister Zarif has been waiting 34 years to cast his ballot. Welcome, thank you all so much for joining us, and congratulations.
Mr. HASAN ZARIF: Welcome.
Mr. CHARLES BADGER: Thank you
Mr. ARA ALAN: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Ara, can we start with you. You grew up in Iraq, yes?
Mr. ALAN: Right.
MARTIN: And now that you are an American citizen - well, first of all, did you ever vote in Iraq?
Mr. ALAN: Well, I had left when it was during Saddam Hussein's time, and there is no voting process and - but we did participate in the Iraqi election that was carried out because they had voting centers in the United States, and the one closest to us was actually in Nashville, Tennessee. And as Kurds, we took upon ourselves to be participating in this election, and we drove up to Nashville, Tennessee one time to register and the week after to go out and vote.
MARTIN: All right. I just want to clarify that you were able to vote in 2005 for the national assembly. Is that about right? Do I have that right?
Mr. ALAN: That's correct.
MARTIN: That's correct. OK. So what was it like to vote for the first time - or have you voted yet? Did you vote early or just voting today? You're just voting on election day? Going to vote?
Mr. ALAN: I have just voted, and it feels great. It is an opportunity that we haven't had before, something that we're not used to. I am glad to say that, among 4,000-plus Kurdish-Americans in the United States and quite a number of us have actually just become citizens, and all are participating for the first time in this election. We are very excited to participate in it because the message that it bring - brought forth, and this election can affect our country because of the situation of Iraq and in Turkey.
MARTIN: Now, I may be taking this to - in a direction you don't want to go in, but I remember when - the Archbishop in South Africa, Desmond Tutu, voted for the first time, he said it was like falling in love.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Was it like that for you, or maybe that's too deep?
Mr. ALAN: It's not too deep. It's amazing to be able to make a difference because there's a lot at stake in this election, and it got us excited. And as Kurds here, we have actually took the initiative for ourselves to start a group in name of Kurds for Obama because we believe in the message of change that he has. And especially, we support Senator Joe Biden's proposal for Iraq, his three-state solution, and we believe it's the only way that we can responsibly end the war in Iraq.
MARTIN: OK. I was going to ask if you wouldn't mind telling me who you voted for, but you are supporting Senator Obama and the Obama-Biden ticket.
Mr. ALAN: Right.
MARTIN: OK. Charles, you are 19 years old, as I understand it?
Mr. BADGER: Yes.
MARTIN: What was it like for you voting for the first time?
Mr. BADGER: Well, it's an incredible experience, needless to say. Certainly goes against what I think a lot people seem to believe about our age group, the 18 to 25 demographic. I think we've gotten a bad rap over the last couple of years as being out of the process, and I think this particular election has gotten a lot of us energized.
MARTIN: I understand that you are Senator McCain's youth co-chairman for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, right?
Mr. BADGER: I sure am.
MARTIN: And vice chairman of the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans, so you just jumped in with both feet, right? You didn't just, like, vote, you just all the way in. You're all in.
Mr. BADGER: Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: What made you want to get this involved?
Mr. BADGER: Well, I've actually volunteered on political campaigns since I was 12 years old. I volunteered on my first state race when I was 12 for a man by the name of Ed Sanders who ran for governor of Tennessee in 2002. And he was a very inspirational figure for me, and I've worked probably about - volunteered on probably half a dozen campaigns since that time for governors, Senate, local races in Nashville, Tennessee, where I am originally from. And I just got bit with the political bug by - at an early age, and now, I am thoroughly a political junkie who just thoroughly loves the process.
MARTIN: It must have been so weird to be involved in campaigns before you could vote. I mean, you know what I mean? It was that kind of like being a passenger in the car and never getting to drive, huh?
Mr. BADGER: Somewhat it was, somewhat, yeah. I remember one of my races, I turned 16 during the race, and they had a little party for me in the campaign office, and that was pretty fun and brought out the cake and so forth and so. It is very (unintelligible).
MARTIN: You know, I don't want a cake. I want to vote.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BADGER: It is very amusing. It is very amusing.
MARTIN: Minister Zarif, would you just tell us your story. You have a criminal record, as I said. And I understand it was a felony conviction, which meant that you lost your right to vote for a time. Had you voted before that?
Mr. ZARIF: No, I had not voted before that. I lost my right to vote in 1974 in the circuit court, city of Richmond due to a felony conviction. And my rights were restored on August 6, 2007. So, they were just recently restored.
MARTIN: How do you go about getting your right to vote restored?
Mr. ZARIF: In Virginia, you have to first complete all your sentence and then complete all of your parole. In my case, I had to serve 16 years and four months in the prison system, then another 12 years on parole. And then I had to wait an additional five years after I was released from parole, and then I could appeal to the governor after I had made sure all of my fines were paid and all restitution, and then I could file. And then I received an answer almost about a year and a half later.
MARTIN: So, it's not automatic. There's a process that you have to - it's not automatic when you finish you term of service, whatever your legal obligations are. You have to go and proactively apply, right? You've got to go do something. Is that how it is?
Mr. ZARIF: Yes. It's a very cumbersome process, and you just need to be patient. But while you're waiting, there are some things that you can do to prepare yourself. Get your letters ready. Do community service work. Be involved in your community. Be a productive citizen. Maintain employment. Just be a law-abiding citizen to prepare yourself to be able to present your case to the governor.
MARTIN: Why was it so important to you to do this, to go through all that?
Mr. ZARIF: It was so important for me because, as a young person, I made a mistake when I was 21 years of age. Someone who makes a mistake at 21, and then 36 years later, they are ready to resume their place in society as a productive citizen, should be given another opportunity. And I was ready, more than ready. And I was excited this morning to be able to - I didn't get much sleep. I was excited to be able to get ready to go to the polls and to be able to vote.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I am speaking with first-time voters Ara Alan, Charles Badger, and Hasan Zarif about voting for the first time.
Ara, can I ask you, we last - we talked to a group of folks, also a group of young men for some reason, who - all of whom are eligible to vote and none of whom choose to vote. And they all have different stories. When you hear a story like that, what do you think?
Mr. ALAN: I think it's very sad, and it's a lost opportunity. And everybody has a say-so in the government, and some people tend to think that no matter what they do, it doesn't affect anything or doesn't change anything, and this is not correct. It takes a group effort. Obviously, it's not one individual voting or not that makes a difference, all of us together, but our voice will be counted together. And nobody should waste it, and I think it's slowly changing. The younger generation are changing, and especially for us who are people - like, in Iraq, as a Kurd, we are not allowed to vote or participate and not having a voice in the government that's - who make rules that affect you directly can be very harsh. And we should all be involved.
MARTIN: Charles Badger, what about you? Do you have any - I can't imagine you spending too much time with people who don't vote or have any interest in the process. I can't imagine you having too much truck with that. But do you know anybody who doesn't vote, and...
Mr. BADGER: Well, yeah, sure, you know. I mean, at college, I think there were certainly plenty in my age group around, other college students who fit that category, who aren't voting for different reasons. And certainly, back home where I'm from, you know. But of course - I mean, as an African-American, I have to obviously have a certain appreciation, I think above even some others, for this process, you know, and really be grateful for the fact that, you know, I go to the polls today, and no one asked me how many bubbles in a bar of soap or how many jelly beans in a jar or any silly questions like that.
I just to get to go in and cast my ballot, and so - and even, you know, as an 18-year-old, and have an appreciation for that movement that took place in the '70s allowed me to do this at this particular age. So I think that's the case I make to other people, both of my race and of my age group, to say, look, you know, people fought and died for this, literally, whether it's in Vietnam or in Selma or on a march somewhere. People literally fought and died for this. And so it's really important.
MARTIN: Isn't it interesting. It's - you are a very committed Republican, very active Republican. This is also an election in which we have the first African-American nominated by a major party who is in a strong position, potentially, to become president. Was that interesting for you? Did it make it more interesting for you? Or as a Republican, you're just like, ah, whatever.
Mr. BADGER: Well, certainly, I would not have - well, it's an interesting question. Certainly, I get it all the time. And certainly, as an African-American, especially as a young person, I'm proud of Senator Obama. I admire him and appreciate what he's done. He's certainly an inspirational figure and all of those great things.
But at the end of the day, I disagree with him on about 95 percent of the issues. And so that's the overriding issue that it comes down for me. And so, parties mean something in this country, and I belong to a party because I subscribe to its viewpoint and its philosophy. And I don't subscribe to the philosophy of those on the other side, as represented by Senator Obama. So, it was actually a pretty easy choice for me, in spite of my appreciation for Senator Obama's achievements.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask about the rest of your family?
Mr. BADGER: I'm the only Republican in my family.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, you obviously are a strong young man. Good for you.
Mr. BADGER: Makes for great discussions around family dinners.
MARTIN: That's right. Thanksgiving's going to be fun at your house.
Mr. BADGER: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah. Let us know how that goes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Minister Zarif, what about you? Do you know anyone who is eligible to vote who doesn't vote, and do you think about all that you've had to go through to regain the right to vote? Does that ever come up? Have you ever talked to anybody about it?
Mr. ZARIF: Well, certainly, I know individuals who - they say their vote probably won't count. But when I look at how it was in the '60s and the '70s and look at how things are today and individuals who took part in being a part of the process to help change things, I believe that every vote counts.
And if you don't want to be a part of it, as I look today, how I got my rights restored in Virginia. At one time, you had to have so many documents to get your rights restored. Being one of the individuals who lobbied before the legislators to - and talk with them about changing the process in such a way that I was able to get my rights restored, I know that if you're not part of the solution, you are definitely a part of the problem. So, I feel that every vote counts. It may not seem like it, but it does.
MARTIN: We're going to take a short break, and we're going to continue our conversation with our roundtable of first-time voters in just a moment. A special programming note, tonight, Tell Me More's team of producers will blog actively throughout election night. We'll have virtual updates on the latest returns as they come in, and a glimpse into some of the election-night excitement. So, join Tell Me More tonight. You'll find us at our blog. Go to npr.org and click on Tell Me More.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our weekly segment with the moms. We'll hear from two politically-savvy moms and their kids about how to stay tuned in during the election season.
But first, we're going to continue our conversation with our roundtable of first-time voters. I'm talking with Ara Alan, he's a Kurdish-American who just became a citizen this year, Charles Badger, a sophomore at Berea College who just became old enough to vote, and Hasan Zarif, he is a minister as well as a reentry coordinator for Goodwill in Richmond, Virginia. He has just had his voting rights restored after serving a long prison sentence for murder. Minister Zarif has been waiting 34 years to cast a ballot.
So, Minister Zarif, earlier, you were explaining how you believe that every vote counts, but clearly, there are many people who think the opposite. We're talking about the potential for a record turnout this year, but that's not hard to beat in this country. Our previous high record in the modern era for voter turnout was something like 57 percent. But that still means that something like 43 percent of people don't go to the polls. What do you think that means?
Mr. ZARIF: If you don't keep up with what's going on in society and don't know about the changes - I was talking to a lady only yesterday, and I was talking about how far we have come in Virginia and how it was back in the '50s and the '60s, and I have seen we have come a long ways.
There are individuals, they have never dealt with the days of old and some of the issues of the old time. So, therefore, they figure that their vote does not count. But when you look at how things have changed, how we have moved forward, how we are today, now, getting ready to seat the first African-American, but not necessarily just an African-American, but a great American in the White House in Washington D.C., we have come a long way. So, that means that your voice and your vote does count.
MARTIN: Well, we don't know yet because the votes haven't been counted yet. So, I hear Charles kind of cleared his throat over there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So, we'll see what happens. We'll see what happens. So, what is each of you going to do election day? How are you going to spend this day? Kind of like your birthday. So Hasan Zarif, Minister Zarif, what are you going to do?
Mr. ZARIF: Today, I'll be speaking at Virginia Union University, at the Police Academy for the city of Richmond to a group of individuals who are going to be working with individuals who are coming out of prison and how they can work with those individuals inside of prison and outside of prison so that they can become productive citizens and seek to get their rights restored and become a part of the voting process.
MARTIN: Ara, what are you going to do today?
Mr. ALAN: Most likely, we're going to celebrate because me and my colleagues have worked very hard and tirelessly on the phone. We're going to put the phones away and stop making calls for people to urge them to go out and vote. And we have been calling, like, states like Virginia. We've been very active over there, actually, calling the Kurdish community involved. And we're going to be celebrating. We're going to be just enjoying and getting a break from all of this. We have worked very hard in the past few months campaigning.
MARTIN: And, Charles, what are you going to do today?
Mr. BADGER: Well, this morning, I'm going to spend my time reflecting on the really monumental nature of what we're doing here. This summer, I had the great privilege of interning in Washington. And I attended a naturalization ceremony on the 4th of July in Monticello, which is a really outstanding event to attend. 70 something folks were made Americans, and President Bush was on hand and gave a speech and was there as they were sworn in, delivered the oath of naturalization, and became citizens.
And it's a really powerful thing. And I remember being filled with a, really, sense of pride at that point on that day at what was happening with my country. And I will, I imagine, have a similar feeling today and really spend some time reflecting on how powerful, important this election is and what we're doing.
Mr. ALAN: I'd like to say it's true that, what you said about you attended a ceremony, and it's really almost like being born again. And for many of us in my family, I appreciate that you're there.
MARTIN: Were you there? Ara, were you there?
Mr. ALAN: I was not there, but I was up at - I went through the same process in Atlanta.
MARTIN: Oh, OK. All right. Well, that's wonderful. Ara Alan is a Kurdish-American, he became a citizen this year. He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Charles Badger is a sophomore at Berea College and vice chairman of the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans. He joined us from member station WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky. And Hasan Zarif joined us from member station WVCE in Richmond, Virginia. Thank you all so much for joining us, gentlemen, and congratulations.
Mr. ALAN: Thank you.
Mr. BADGER: Thank you.
Mr. ZARIF: Thank you. I'm very honored to be part of your program.