U.S. Elections and America's Changing Story -- Seen From Inside the Polls

Wednesday, November 7th 2012

Citizens wait to vote at Arlington Fire Station

Yesterday's Presidential elections offered a rich vein of information and insights for public diplomacy officers around the world.

No matter your politics, the turnout and the changing demographics of the American electorate combined with the spectacle of ordinary voters having their say.  The election's outcome leaves undecided how the campaign's bitterly fought policy issues may be resolved, but that leaves a playground for pundits and prognosticators at embassy presentations.  If I were still a public affairs officer, I would rubbing my hands in glee at the program possibilities.

I'm no longer a PAO, but yesterday I saw the voting from the inside as an officer of elections for Arlington County, Virginia.

Our team of one dozen volunteers assisted nearly 2500 voters, starting our day before the polls opened at 6 am.  By the time we had reported the official results from Precinct 19 it was 11 pm.  Over the course of the day, I checked in hundreds of my neighbors at the polls, discovering a surprisingly youthful electorate and a virtual United Nations of ethnicities.

Those voters with Latin, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds humored my efforts to pronounce their names (the officer is required to announce the name and address out loud for the political parties' official pollwatchers' benefit.)  Almost no one was in a bad mood; most were cheeful after standing in line in near-freezing temperatures.

Our polling station was nearly overwhelmed by the volume of voters, and that was after record-breaking numbers who had already voted in advance (another subject for pundits!)  People waited more than two and a half hours to cast their ballots.  When I would tell a tired citizen "I'm sorry you had to wait so long," the universal reply was: "It's worth it."

Indeed.  The people in U.S. public diplomacy who are "telling America's story" have a changing story to tell.  But yesterday's peaceful and lawful closure to a long campaign is the unchanging theme.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.

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Author: Joe Johnson


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