Have you ever been a poll observer? During the last presidential elections, I volunteered heavily in New Hampshire, which was considered one of the “battleground states.” I got to know the college town of Keene and its vicinity very well (I have a few interesting stories to boot). On election day, I had the honor of being a poll observer for one of Keene’s polling sites. It’s not really an exciting job. The poll observers are cornered behind the clerks who note residents as they come in and hand them ballots. The poll observer sits, listens, and may note the names of voters. That’s about it.

The purpose, though, is to get the names of those who have voted from the polling site to phone banks, so those who have not voted can be cajoled. However, rumors swelled that Republican poll observers would challenge the validity of voter registrations in order to disqualify Democrats. The fear of foul play was strong, and this seemed like another opportunity to tip the election in a different direction.

Delightfully, nothing happened. We were instructed to delay, but not argue, and contact a lawyer. But my counterpart challenged no one. She was a delightful woman, and we helped each other out in our respective tasks. I wished I had thanked her for a pleasant time on what would be, for me, an exciting and unpleasant day.

Right now I feel like I have been cornered into making a choice for president among the Democratic contenders. The campaign hasn’t unfolded as I would have wanted, and candidates whom I admired dropped out. Indeed, Bill Richardson’s withdrawal forces me to judge the remaining candidates differently. What I wanted was a president with experience … deep experience. Richardson embodied that quality, serving in major capacities related to the three things that concern me: foreign policy, economy, and environment. Indeed, it was like my ideal candidate had been dressed in brown skin … except Richardson wasn’t as dynamic as I would have wanted. Or the public, for that matter. I almost wondered if he wanted the job. I also hoped Joe Biden would have caught fire, which he tried to do, but to no avail.

None of the remaining candidates embody the experience I am looking for, even if some candidates have slightly more or slightly varied political careers than others. The other criteria I would have to go with are judgment, movement, and democracy.

Judgement: Although I never supported the invasion of Iraq (I supported UN inspectors only), I don’t hold it against any politician who voted for or supported the IWR.
John Kerry, for instance, voted for the resolution, but was critical at every step taken in the escalation thereafter. I can believe that some politicians were foolish and naive. However, I will look at candidates’ stances on the war and their attitudes toward funding troops and withdrawal. Ultimately, I want someone who will think sensibly about military and foreign when drawing a strategy for withdrawal.

Movement: The ephemeral quality–who captures the imagination of the public and brings them to action. I’ve been taken aback by the activism of fellow historians, notably fellow Cliopatriarchs Ralph Luker and Manan Ahmed. I have received letters from two friends–both tenure-track professors–to support one particular candidate. Normally, I am skeptical of the politicization of history. However, I take this as evidence, close at hand, that this one candidate is successful including people in the political process, inspiring them to act. As I will give time to the campaign as well as my vote, I can feel confident that those involved feel committed to the candidate, not the defeat of the opponent.

Democracy: This goes strait back to 2004–the sense that more people need to be directly involved in politics, but politics finds ways of keeping them out. I was dismayed to learn that in New Hampshire, one candidate’s poll observers challenged the credentials of another. This may have frustrated the GOTV (though there is not evidence it had this effect). This plays right into my nightmares of four years ago, except it is happening within the party itself. Challenging special caucus districts in Nevada also concerns me. We should make voting easier and easier, not restrict it. The rhetoric of surrogates further dismays me, showing a lack of control and poor judgment of supporters at the very least.

My choice, obviously, is Barack Obama. He has conducted his campaign with extreme dignity, restoring a sense of honor to the political process that encourages people to participate. He is thoughtful about his choices, and he seeks to include people in decision making. Moreover, he is capable of inspiring people to action, to believe that political power resides in them. A fairy tale, perhaps, but fairy tales find meaning in reality.