When she landed at the Atlanta airport 10 years ago, Layla Nash remembers how an immigration officer stamped her Russian passport and warmly said, "Welcome to the United States."
Now she feels like she has finally arrived.
After becoming a U.S. citizen in May 2011, Nash voted for the first time on Saturday at an early voting site in Hollywood, waiting nearly three hours.
"I'm proud to be part of this," said Nash, 38, of Dania Beach. "Voting makes me feel like I'm a full citizen, lets me know that my voice can be heard…God bless America."
It's easy to become jaded by politics, easy to get tired of the negative ads and endless campaigning, easy to say big money has distorted the process and that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is the difference between Coke and Pepsi — or hemlock and cyanide.
But when you talk to first-time voters, it's hard not to get inspired. They represent democracy at its most elemental, excited to have their electoral say. Some are fresh-faced students, brimming with idealism. Some are immigrants, the latest to embrace the American dream. And some are political late bloomers, jolted into action after years of lethargy.
"It's empowering," said Liz Angiolilli, 40, of Boynton Beach.
I found Angiolilli bundled in a jacket and scarf earlier this week outside the early voting site at the Delray Beach Library, a chilly wind whipping the hour-long line. After 22 years of eligibility, she finally became a registered voter in September.
"These Republicans make me a nervous wreck — I'm very worried about women's rights being taken away," said Angiolilli. "Before, I didn't think voting made a difference, but now I see it really does."
Anybody who was in Florida during the 2000 election recount, with its final 537-vote margin vaulting George W. Bush to the presidency, should know how every vote counts.
Allen Galati, 18, said he's too young to remember that election, but he's been determined to vote ever since he pre-registered in high school two years ago. On Wednesday, he met his friend Thanuj Singh, 18, to vote for the first time at the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines.
College student Justin Castillo, 20, of Miramar, was surprised to encounter local candidates campaigning as he stood in line. "I didn't realize politicians would actually be here," he said. "It makes it real."
Joe Swett, 24, a Coast Guard petty officer, missed out on the last election while busy in Virginia with training deployments. Now based in Dania Beach, he plans to vote for the first time Tuesday.
"I'm excited to vote, but I'm not thrilled about the choices," said Swett, a reluctant Romney supporter. "We need Colin Powell to run next time."