LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. When we head to our polling places, we bring much more than a registration card and a sense of civic duty. We also carry the experiences we've had throughout our lives. Today we meet three Tennessee residents who take very different paths to the voting booth. Matt Shafer Powell has their stories from member station WUOT in Knoxville.
MATT SHAFER POWELL: A fighter jet, a child's bicycle, a prison door. For Mihash Schmigelski(ph), Sarah Moore Green(ph) and Marvin Hatcher(ph), these symbols represent pivotal life-changing moments, moments they take with them to the ballot box.
Mr. MIHASH SCHMIGELSKI (Former Romanian Air Force Pilot): This is a P-47 Thunderbolt. And this one...
POWELL: Mihash Schmigelski shows off one of the nearly 100 model airplanes he keeps in his office at the Knoxville Airport. His favorite is an L-39 Albatross fighter jet. In 1987, Schmigelski was a pilot in training in Romania's communist air force. And one sunny Saturday, he climbed into the cockpit of an L-39 and flew it to freedom.
Mr. SCHMIGELSKI: Basically at that point I was like, I'm either going to live or die. I'm doing it. I don't care. I'm just going straight ahead and never look back.
POWELL: That was 21 years ago. And Mihash Schmigelski hasn't looked back. He's a U.S. citizen now with a wife, four children, and a good job. And he also has a bit of perspective when it comes to elections. In communist Romania, elections were both meaningless and mandatory. As an American citizen, Schmigelski is a proud voter. But he also understands he doesn't have to vote, and the fact that he can make that choice is an expression of his freedom.
Mr. SCHMIGELSKI: Voting was meaningless in Romania even though it was a hundred percent. It was a futile exercise, voting, but you had to do it. This is a meaningful activity. It's a privilege, it's a right, but you're not forced to do it.
Ms. SARAH MOORE GREEN (Civil Rights Activist): I feel that voting is so important.
POWELL: Sarah Moore Green knows she can skip an election if she wants. But even at 96 years old, she won't. That's because she still sees the vote as a powerful weapon in America's long fight against racial discrimination.
Ms. GREEN: We fought for everything we wanted. And we still fight for the other things if you don't give them to us. And we do it through voting.
POWELL: Green grew up in the segregated South, unwilling to accept second-class status. But she didn't dedicate her life to fighting it until she came upon a young African-American boy from her neighborhood. He was lying on the pavement next to his bicycle. He had accidentally run into a barbwire fence and sliced his neck open.
Ms. GREEN: And I went over there and I said, what happened? And the little boy looked up at me and said - and he screamed, am I going to die? I said, no, we're going to get you to the hospital.
POWELL: But the closest hospital wouldn't admit black patients. So the boy was taken across town to the only one that did, and he didn't make it. To this day, Sarah Moore Green is haunted by her unfulfilled promise.
Ms. GREEN: Five minutes earlier, they could have saved him. And that stayed on - that stayed on my mind. That made me really become interested in integration, that one thing alone.
POWELL: So she joined protests and sat in at segregated lunch counters. She helped to integrate schools, businesses, and hospitals. And she traveled the South to register black voters. At some point, Green came to understand that change in America is only possible if you use the system to change itself.
Ms. GREEN: I feel the greatest tools that we have is our voting rights. In other words, if somebody is in office and they don't do the right thing, let's vote them out.
Mr. MARVIN HATCHER: I'm not going to just pull a lever. I'm going to find out what I'm voting on, and then I'm going to vote my conscience.
POWELL: That's Marvin Hatcher. Like Sarah Moore Green, Hatcher doesn't plan to miss another election either. Maybe that's to make up for the dozens of elections he's already missed. At 53, he's about to vote for the first time ever.
Mr. HATCHER: Oh, this is important, yeah, because I - I own property, I pay a lot of taxes, I have a little boy again. I'm voting for his rights as well as mine.
POWELL: Hatcher admits to giving up most of his adult life to a crippling cocaine addiction. As an addict who stole cars to support his habit, concepts like civic responsibility never crossed his mind. But then something happened.
Mr. HATCHER: The last time I got imprisoned in Tennessee, when they closed the door on me, I thought, I can't believe I'm back in here. It was devastating.
POWELL: So he joined a prison drug rehab program. By the time he was released, he was clean, sober, and ready for a fresh start. That was 11 years ago. Now he's happily married with an adopted grandson and a successful siding business. But he's also a felon. In Tennessee, felons can't vote unless they go through a rigorous reinstatement process. A rare few actually go to the trouble, but for Hatcher it was another step on his journey to respectability.
Mr. HATCHER: I'm really looking forward to that. I've never see the inside of a voting booth or whatever it is. Now I have no idea, I've never been in one. So I am anxiously awaiting the first time I do that. Man, I can't wait to voice my opinion.
POWELL: Maybe a fighter jet, a child's bicycle, and a prison door don't seem to have much in common. But they represent important moments in the lives of these three people. And they represent the diverse range of experiences that all of us bring when we go to the voting booth. For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville, Tennessee.