World View: Feeling fully American after first-time vote

Seventeen minutes.

That's all it took for me to vote for the first time as an American. Tuesday night's visit to the polls was a first, too, in that I'd never voted for anything or any election associated with any of the three other countries whose passports I have held: France, Britain and Sri Lanka.

Although I have spent about three-quarters of my existence to date living in the United States, as a green card holder I moved around stateside and abroad so often that it took me years before I could consistently meet the federal government's minimum criteria for residency in order to apply for U.S. naturalization.

As a person of voting age, I also criss-crossed the globe so frequently, living at different times in France, Britain, Sri Lanka, and in other countries, that I never stayed put long enough to feel invested in local politics along with their citizenries (for the record, I was born in London to a French mother and Sri Lankan father). I also developed a bad habit of missing the deadlines for registering to vote as an expatriate in French, British or Sri Lankan national elections. But I hope that you'll sympathize with me, because being a man made up of at least three countries and multiple continents can be confusing.

It was that sense of living a global nomad's life and being rootless that made me want to become an American. I grew tired of such a mobile existence and wanted to feel that I belonged to one place, so I finally decided to apply for citizenship in May 2008. On April 22, 2009, I and 4,000 other immigrants officially became Americans. En masse we gave up our green cards and took the Oath of Citizenship together in one of those cavernous livestock exhibit buildings at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona. Yet, for me, the act of voting sealed my completion as an American, a journey that started when I first set foot on U.S. soil at age seven.

On Tuesday night, I was nervous as I stepped up to the voting stall at a local theater to fill in that nine-page ballot. With all those state and local elections, and a slate of propositions to consider, I admit that the ballot's complexity was daunting. I ended up voting with my gut.

It felt good, however, to ink in those little bubbles, then hand my ballot to the friendly poll worker. The volunteer thanked me for my vote and handed me my ballot stub and one of those stickers printed with the words, "I voted," in English and other languages, which I proudly affixed to my lapel. Compared with the brashly patriotic ambience of last year's naturalization ceremony, the theatre's understated and plain atmosphere was more comforting and natural to me.

At 7:01 p.m., as I stepped outside, the momentousness of Election Day hit me. I realized that after spending most of my life watching the U.S. political process from the outside in as a resident foreigner, as a new American I had just taken my first step in participating in that process by exercising my citizen's right to vote. I was now rooted in the soil of this great, though imperfect, nation.

I realized as well that American politics, and this land's unique system of democracy, had been a part of me most of my life.

For me, Tuesday's act of voting put into place the final piece of the jigsaw of my American existence. In many ways I was already an American. I grew up loving baseball, American football, hamburgers, apple pie and "Hawaii Five-O" (the show's original incarnation). And I had paid my taxes.

All that was missing was to become a citizen and get out there and vote.

IMRAN VITTACHI is the Daily Pilot's city editor.

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