No election ever sapped my physical and emotional energy as much as the recent US presidential elections. After witnessing electoral malpractices of indescribable dimensions and scale in Nigeria, I had come to the conclusion that elections in general are not worth the sweat. And as the US election approached and the dirty, dangerous and desperate fighting by the Republicans got worse, my cynicism turned to fear. That fear gripped me tightly. A few weeks to the election, it was clear that Barack Obama would win; but with the US Republicans, it is not over until they are under. The Republicans brought out all the lethal weapons in their arsenal: Obama’s birth certificate issue; Obama’s pastor, Pastor Wright’s racial venom; Obama’s neighbor, Bill Ayers’s ‘terrorist’ records; Obama Aunt’s illegal residence in the US; Obama’s promise to redistribute wealth which they called socialism; Joe the Plumber; Obama’s anti-Israel friend, Khalid …the list of smear dots was endless. For me, every new day brought fresh fears.
The elections came. I went monitoring and observing the process with two sets of news writing students of my host college, College of Communications. I visited three voting stations: two outside and one on campus. I was stunned by the fact that there was not a single policeman in any voting station; I was stunned that people went to vote carrying their children with them—who could do that in my country where people go to voting stations not sure they would return alive or in one piece. I was stunned by the sheer number of nonpartisan organizations out there to help voters find their way and precinct. I was stunned that elections were handled by the states, and not by the federal government. Therefore each state (even county) designed its ballot papers and voting method. I was stunned that, accompanied by Jennifer Zeigler, a colleague and an instructor in news writing, I was allowed right up to the ballot cubicle though it was obvious that I was not a citizen. I was stunned by the sheer list of things people voted on: it was not just the presidential and congressional candidates. Folks were asked, in Fergusson Township, to vote on tenure elongation for County Council members. That too was on the ballot papers. I was stunned by the spirit which kept people on the queue for five hours plus without them complaining. I was too stunned to write—that is why this piece is coming this late.
I met an old white lady at the voting centre in the HUB at Penn State University. She told me she was 76. She carried candies and water which she generously offered people who queued to vote. She wore Obama signs but her water and candies were for whoever wanted to vote—no matter who was their candidate. She had been there four hours when I got there; and was there standing while I left two hours after.
What was behind this spirit? Another colleague of mine, Dr Jo Dumas, who on that day wore the sign “Poll Monitor”, put it this way: “the message has sunk down into people’s hearts. If you want people, reach for their hearts”. I interpreted “the message” to be Obama’s message of change.
Polls closed in Pennsylvania at 8 pm. CNN began including Pennsylvania results in their announcements from 8:15 pm. Talk about the power of speed and technology. (In Nigeria, it took about a week for the 2007 election result to be released—which is what Professor Maurice Iwu, Nigeria electoral boss, wants the US to learn from us!)
My friends and I did not sleep even after CNN's Wolf Blitzer pronounced Obama winner about 11 pm, Eastern Time. “Was it real? Please pinch me! It’s a dream”, one of my friends said as the announcement was made. It is real.