The polls open here at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and when that unforgettable moment arrives, Eva Rabinovich says she'll be standing on the doorstep, keenly awaiting the chance to use her newest and most cherished possession: the right to vote for a government of her choice.

"It sort of gives me the shake in the knees," Rabinovich said in the lilting, exotic accent of her native Riga, Latvia, U.S.S.R. "My friend Yana and I keep talking about it -- that we, just peons, will pick the president of the U.S.A.!"

Precisely 50 days after she officially became a U.S. citizen, Rabinovich will join some 96 million other "just peons" to choose the people who will govern the richest nation on Earth.

As Rabinovich and her friend Yana Vishnitsky, another Soviet refugee casting her first vote Tuesday, know full well, it is a privilege that a minority of the planet enjoys.

According to Freedom House, a New York-based research institution, 24 percent of the world's population gets the chance to vote in a genuinely free election. The portion goes up to 36 percent if one counts India, where democracy has been an on-and-off phenomenon in recent years.

"The whole idea is so new, about how my voice matters," Vishnitsky agreed in the thicker accent of her home city, Odessa.

"In Soviet Union, we were told who to vote for -- so why to bother?" she said. "But now, we are the free people. We make a real vote on Tuesday!"

The concept of a "real vote" in which all citizens -- rich and poor, native and naturalized -- have a say in the formation of the government is one of the American contributions to history.

Some societies experimented with voting before the American Revolution, but suffrage was limited, usually to the wealthy.

The Founding Fathers set up election laws that seem restrictive by modern standards -- women, slaves and Indians, among others, were denied the vote at the nation's birth. But they did expand the suffrage to all free men, landowners or not, an unheard-of notion in the 18th century.

The right to vote for one's governors became the touchstone of Americanism in the nation's first decades. The privilege was celebrated by John Greenleaf Whittier in his paean to free elections, "The Poor Voter on Election Day."

"The proudest now is but my peer, The highest not more high; Today, of all the weary year, A king of men am I! While there's a right to need my vote, A wrong to sweep away, Up! Clouted knee and ragged coat! A man's a man today."

Rabinovich studied Whittier in her English literature courses at the Latvian University in Riga, but that poem about voting was not included in the Soviet curriculum. Accordingly, she knew little about free elections when she came to this country.

Rabinovich and Vishnitsky came here in the late 1970s, when the Soviets were relatively lenient about emigration, in pursuit of religious freedom. "We wanted a chance to go to synagogue, to be Jews without a feeling of scared or shame," Rabinovich said.

Both women are college graduates, and both had some idea of what the United States was all about. Both have worked since their arrival with older Soviet immigrants at the Jewish Family and Children's Center here, so they were familiar with the emotions of Soviet refugees learning American ways.

But neither was prepared for the sheer joy that came earlier this fall when they walked up to a table at a neighborhood Safeway and registered to vote.

"It is just piece of paper, and yes, that's all, but still it's very psychological," Vishnitsky said.

"It's a matter of belonging to something. In Russia, you don't matter. We learn that. But here, I have a vote that matters. I belong to this country; it's kind of, kind of identity for me."

For all the happiness that will surround their first free votes, both refugees say they are scared about what will happen when they step into the voting booth.

"I thought, you vote for president and then it will be over," Rabinovich said. "But it is more. You know, you have to put something in every box, all these amendments, names -- all that." Told that it is not necessary to vote for every office, Rabinovich looked puzzled. "Why wouldn't you?" she asked.

For that matter, both women are puzzled that so many Americans fail to exercise their Election Day right.

Surveys suggest that slightly more than half the eligible voters will take the time to cast ballots in this election, although some students of voting behavior say that greatly increased registration this year will result in a turnout higher than the 52.6 percent that cast ballots in 1980.

"It just fries me to see how many people don't even want to take the time to vote," said Reta Crain, an election clerk here.

"I mean, I was in the Safeway registering voters," she added, "and this woman came up and said, 'Will this take long?' And I said, 'About three minutes,' and she looked at her watch and walked away.

"And I thought, Gosh, lady, all over the world people are dying for this right, and you can't take three minutes for it."

The two new Americans have seen the same attitude, and are surpised by it.

"The Americans, they have such an amazing freedom here, and in some ways they don't care," Vishnitsky said.