The structure that housed the Independent High Electoral Commission was tall, brown and nondescript, like most of the other buildings in Baghdad, government or otherwise.
It was nestled just inside the “Green Zone” — the large, highly fortified district in Iraq’s capital where the U.S. Embassy is located — which meant I didn’t need a security escort that evening when the chief electoral officer invited me to tour the offices.
I don’t recall if we used the elevator — stairs were a safer bet in Iraqi office buildings in 2007 — but I vividly remember walking the halls as he excitedly explained the commission’s work on administering elections in the fledgling republic.
The offices were full of outdated computers and equipment that had probably taken the government years to acquire.
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Those old computers were operated by a small staff of brave professionals who were willing to risk their lives for the cause of democracy during the tumultuous years of sectarian violence that followed the U.S. occupation.
An old copy machine partially blocked a hallway, perhaps because it needed access to a functioning electrical outlet.
None of that mattered to my host. Dodging it, he ran to a printer and, grinning, handed me a stack of colorful election posters and guides.
One depicted a family heading out to vote; one showed a sample ballot; another showed a hand with a raised purple index finger, a symbol of hope during the 2005 elections.
I still have those posters.
I’ve often thought I should frame and hang them on the walls of my home, because I sometimes need a reminder of what they represent.
Like so many Americans, I take our election process for granted.
I’m embarrassed to admit that, on more than one occasion since my 18th birthday, I have missed the opportunity to cast a ballot in a local election because I was busy or I simply forgot.
Voting often becomes just another chore, an errand on the endless list of things we should do but find tedious and perfunctory.
I doubt the people depicted on those Iraqi posters ever felt that way about voting.
According to the most recent data available, voter turnout in the 2016 U.S. election cycle was about 60 percent.
That’s about the same percentage of Iraqis who voted in the 2014 elections amid some of the worst violence the nation had seen in years. Reports at the time indicated that seven people were killed in attacks on polling stations.
We face no such adversity, yet we don’t perform better.
And when it comes to local elections, voter turnout is truly abysmal.
A recent study by Portland State University measured voter participation in local elections. It found that among the nation’s largest cities, Dallas and Fort Worth have the lowest turnout in the U.S.
Turnout in Dallas came in a 6.14 percent of eligible voters — the lowest of any city surveyed, and just a notch worse than Fort Worth, which came in second with 6.48 percent.
Indeed, in Fort Worth, almost a quarter of precincts were labeled a voting desert, defined as the census tracts where turnout by voting-age U.S. citizens was less than 50 percent of the citywide average.
If that’s not shocking, it should be, especially since local elected officials are the ones making many of the decisions that impact our daily lives — about services like water and transportation, about local investment and infrastructure, about public safety and public education.
With the expansion of early voting, we have fewer excuses than ever not to cast a ballot.
Many Americans complain about the government, often for good reasons.
We feel detached from leaders in Washington, D.C.
We are convinced our votes don’t make much impact in federal elections.
To a certain degree that’s true.
But our votes can and do make a big difference at the state and local level.
In the U.S. we don’t have to risk life and limb to cast a ballot.
If you haven’t already voted, take the time to do so on Saturday.