Georgia expatriates David and Erin Purvis fill out their Georgia election ballots at a restaurant in Athens, Greece. “We think it is our privilege and our responsibility as American citizens to vote even when living abroad,” Erin wrote later in an email. CONTRIBUTED

Opinion: Voting in the cradle of democracy

We sit at an outdoor table at the Balcony Restaurant having drinks before dinner.

The restaurant is atop a building on one of those maze-like streets in Athens’ ancient quarter. The late October moon is a couple of days past full and the sky is clear and bright even through the hazy light of the teeming city. Even so, it is poor light for voting.

Erin’s brother, Lee Echols, has brought two packets from Atlanta that contain their ballots. My wife Melinda and I were vacationing in Greece with our friends from Atlanta, Lee and his wife, Margaret Anthony. Lee and Erin are from Milledgeville but grew up in Augusta. David was born in Fort Valley.

Erin had apologized for the restaurant’s lack of an Acropolis view. “They say that the food here will make you forget the view,” she offers as reassurance.

She sips a glass of raki – a clear and fierce Greek form of brandy – and puzzles to make sense of the ballot. She and David have done their homework and feel comfortable with their candidates, but they are confounded by the opaque wording of the constitutional amendments. “I have a master’s degree but I can’t understand this,” she says with genuine frustration.

We try gamely to decipher the language. After some wine and more raki the hidden meanings seem to emerge. We take very special care to coach David and Erin to assure they are casting their lots for bloody marys at brunch.

It is not lost on any of us that we are taking part in a civic ritual that was first practiced about 2,500 years ago a 15-minute walk from this restaurant. Granted, what passes for democracy in 2018 bears only a faint resemblance to the ancient Athenian practice of direct self-rule. For one thing, democracy then was exclusive. Only about a third of the citizenry was eligible to vote – men (of course) who had completed military training. While the system worked well within the limits of a city-state, it was not universally popular: Plato and his student, Aristotle, considered it as a form of “collective tyranny.”

Yet, the ideal that citizens should govern themselves has persisted over the ages and survived even Facebook. With all its imperfections, voting remains the most potent expression of individual power, even if most Americans don’t bother to use it.

The ancient Athenians had the right idea. At one point, they fined citizens for shirking their civic duty.

Erin and David fully grasp the importance of voting. You get that when you spend time in countries where voting is not such a given.

They work with the Lawrenceville-based Mission to the World, an evangelical group that sends missionaries to some pretty challenging places around the globe.

Erin and David moved to Athens in August, after six years in Kiev, Ukraine, and 13 years in Sofia, Bulgaria. They teach English and provide humanitarian assistance to refugee families – mostly those from places like Syria and Iran. They see this work as an expression of their faith. “We never seem to get tired of it,” she says. “God has made us this way for His purposes.”

Greece has become a kind of purgatory for refugees, particularly those fleeing the slaughter in Syria. They abandon their homes, grab their kids and head for wealthy countries like Germany and France in hopes of finding work. Too often, they become trapped in Greece.

In 2016, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned that the country was becoming a “warehouse of souls.”

Erin and David teach English to refugees – a skill that could provide a fighting chance in Europe and elsewhere.

When she talks about her work, Erin’s passion shows. “The folks we work with … have had their lives destroyed by war, political turmoil and persecution,” she says. “Teaching them the useful skill of speaking English and offering a safe community for their families is one small way to help them rebuild their lives and heal.”

In her nearly 20 years of living abroad – often in places that offer either no democracy or a cynical charade of one – Erin’s commitment to voting has deepened.

“We think it is our privilege and our responsibility as American citizens to vote even when living abroad,” she wrote later in an email. “We care about what happens in our country and want to have a part in making changes for the good.

“But as expatriates we would also say it’s more than that. We have lived in autocratic regimes where the opportunity to vote was not a given, and where elections were neither free nor fair.

“Having observed firsthand what happens when leaders commonly operate outside the rule of law, we have grown to appreciate our citizenship in a nation where (at least theoretically) every judge and politician is under the same laws that we are.”

As the food begins coming to the table in aromatic waves, David and Erin complete their ballots – double-checking that black ink is OK. They seal the envelopes and hand them to Lee and Margaret, who pledge safe passage to Atlanta.

Erin, of course, is right about the importance of voting. (She was also right about the restaurant, OMG!) In 2016, as many as 6 million Americans voted overseas - more than the population of Alabama. About 12,000 Georgians voted overseas. It’s never convenient. In 2016, the government emailed David and Erin their ballots, but they had to be printed on standard (only in the the U.S.) 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper - which doesn’t exist in Europe. In a panic, they tore through their office supplies and found a few sheets.

They asked that their 2018 ballots also be emailed, but the government instead snail-mailed them to their house in Georgia. Fortunately, the person renting their house forwarded them to Lee, who carried them to Greece.

As I said, voting from Europe is a pain. Nevertheless, millions of Americans go to the trouble in part because it’s important but also because it reconnects them to their homeland so far away

Think about that Tuesday while debating whether you can spare a few minutes to do your duty.