Winning Over Voters One At A Time In Chicago

Imtyaz SyedI can't imagine what Senators Barack Obama and John McCain are feeling about now. I've been covering this election for what seems like half my life, and I'm exhausted — and I didn't visit seven states today. Just two. And within hours of landing in Chicago, I got a harsh lesson on why this election matters.

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Descending into my old hometown from my current hometown, Cincinnati (which, experts tell us, is one of the keys to this election), I strained through the fog enshrouding the lakefront to see the massive white tents set up by the Obama campaign in Grant Park for Tuesday night's event. I tried to train my camera lens through the window to spot the massive preparations, when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a sleeping woman across the aisle in a blue sweater, sensible skirt, furry Uggs and a carry-on that had the seal of the Department of Justice.

I put my camera away, fearing that giant goons with earpieces would bust out of the lavatory and handcuff me to my seat until the plane landed for trying to "spy" on the Obama setup. I'm not sure what I expected to see through the fog — maybe a Bat-symbol-like giant "O" beaming up through the clouds?

I'm also not sure what I expected to see on the streets of Obama's hometown. Things were remarkably sedate, with few Obama banners, T-shirts or posters adorning windows downtown and, frankly, only one or two Obama bumper stickers on the cars I spotted on the highway from the airport. On Michigan Avenue, there were a few hucksters hawking Obama gear and some buildings throwing up red, white and blue lights on their roofs, but the lack of electricity in Obama's backyard was a bit surprising.

And then, though it's the oldest journalistic cliché in the book, I started chatting up my cab driver. Imtyaz Syed, 24, moved to the U.S. from India 15 years ago. He studied in pharmacy school in Ohio after high school and voted in his first election in 2000. Then he voted in 2004, which is around the time he lost faith in democracy.

"Does people's vote count in this country?" he asked me, peering over his shoulder as traffic backed up for a mile on Michigan Avenue due to the street closures for the Obama rally. "I don't think our votes count. I think it's all the Electoral College, because when I voted the second time and Bush won, I said, 'How come he still wins?' "

Imtyaz went on to tell me how he thinks that American politics is rigged and, deep down, he believes that Obama and McCain have already decided who will win. " 'You let me win, and next time it is your turn,' " he said of the conversation he imagines the senators have already had.

So, Imtyaz isn't going to vote this year. I told him that despite his cynicism, which, in some ways, I wholeheartedly share (except for the taking turns being president bit), he should vote. He needs to vote, if only because then he can tell his children that he did his part. "If you don't vote, then you give up your right to complain about who won also," I told him. He smiled politely and shook his head again.

"If I'm standing there and they count my vote in front of me and I can see that it counts, then they gain my trust," he said. "This is the land of opportunity, and it should be a man running this country with his heart, not for opportunity." Imtyaz went on to tell me about how some members of his family back in India think his father — who is out of work — looks foolish for coming to the United States to better his family. "Now some of them are laughing at us," he said.

I asked Imtyaz if there were anything I could say to him to change his mind. I was determined to stay in that cab until he promised me he'd vote on Tuesday. "It's not a matter of me or my heart," he said, pulling up to the curb. "I don't think one vote can make a difference in this country."

I shook Imtyaz's hand and wished him well and asked him again to reconsider. I hope he does.