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Voting is the thread that weaves democracy

I was about 7 years old when I was first introduced to politics. My family had just moved into a new neighborhood. We had a new front porch swing, and my brother and I decided to test it. A young boy, who lived across the street, heard us laughing and strolled over to meet us. He was tall and skinny and wore horn-rimmed glasses. On his sweater he was wearing a large button that read "Warren G. Harding."

When the boy asked our names, we gave him our first names. In response, he said his name was Warren. I was impressed with the button bearing his name. I asked him where he got it. He explained that his father was working on the presidential election campaign, and he had a big box of them at home. Would we want one?

My brother and I both got a button and Warren explained the Democratic and Republican parties. He said people were tired of wartime and world problems. He said there was a protest against Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic president who was retiring. He was sure Warren Harding, a Republican, would beat the Democratic candidate, James Cox. At least, that's what his father had told him. Harding campaigned on the slogan "Back to Normalcy," but as I remember it, the "Roaring '20s" turned out to be anything but normal.

As our new friend walked away, he said, "Tell your dad to vote for Harding." We waved and smiled.

We knew our father couldn't vote for Harding. He couldn't vote for anyone. He wasn't a citizen yet.

My parents were born in Sweden. My father came to the United States in 1905; my mother arrived in 1910, 10 years before women were allowed to vote in America. In 1921 when my father took the oath of allegiance to become a naturalized citizen, one of the first things he said was, "Now I can vote!"

That day was a red letter day in our family because, according to the laws at that time, my mother automatically became a citizen, too. She also could vote because, only six months before, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had passed, giving all women the right to vote in all elections.

So when my parents went to the polls to vote for the first time, they went together. After that, they never missed an election. It makes me smile when I think of my father as he got ready to leave for the polls. He would always announce dramatically, "We are going to exercise our franchise!" I think he must have picked up that expression in his night school English classes.

I voted for the first time in a local election in Kenosha, Wis. Thanks to my parents' enthusiasm about voting, it was an important day for me. Several of my friends and I who were voting for the first time went to the Kenosha News, our local newspaper, and watched for the results. It was a slow process because voting used paper ballots, which were counted by hand.

My first presidential election also was a big event. I voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt for his second term in 1936. Roosevelt, of course, was elected two more times.

Since my first voting experiences, I have voted in every election _ both national and local _ except one. As it turned out, that one missed election taught me how important my vote is. My husband and I had planned a vacation, and when we were preparing to leave we remembered that the mayoral election would be held while we were gone. We thought about asking for an absentee ballot, but we got so busy that we left without voting. "It won't matter," my husband said. "What difference will two votes make?" When we got back, we learned that our candidate had lost by one vote.

I've never missed an election since.

Leafing through the copies of my father's naturalization papers and seeing his familiar signature, I am sad to think that fewer than 25 percent of eligible voters in the United States turn out on election day. Why are so many citizens too lazy or too indifferent or too busy to vote? When we do that, we throw away one of our most precious rights. I wish that a larger percentage of our citizens would have some of the fervor my immigrant parents had when it came time to vote.

On Nov. 2 we will be able to vote in a presidential election. I hope all those who voted four years ago will return to the polls. And for those of you who didn't vote, I challenge you to register, go to the polls or use an absentee ballot. Then you also will feel the pride my parents did when they took part in the process of government. You, too, can shout to the world or to your own heart, "I exercised my franchise!"

LaVerne Hammond, who divides her time between Wisconsin and Florida, is at work on her memoirs. Write her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.