Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What it was like to be there for the U.S. Presidential Election 2008

I really must write about last week’s U.S. presidential election. The entire world felt the magic of Tuesday November 4th, 2008. In fact, it was the highlight of my recent trip to Manhattan, topping even the great food spots & shops we were fortunate enough to sample all week. I will warn you, however, this post became much longer than expected. I just couldn't help myself - it was an amazing, “once in a lifetime” experience that I had to share.

The Day.
I walked by Rockefeller plaza around 9am to find the t.v. crews were already set up, anticipating the day's events. There was already a certain buzz in the air. "Rockefeller Plaza" had been converted into what they were calling "Election Plaza" - rows and rows of US flags had replaced the UN flags normally gracing the space. And a schematic drawing of the US map was placed in the center of the ice rink....ready to be changed to red (republican) or blue (democrat) depending on how the votes turned out later that night.

The countdown to Election Day was now zero. November 4th had finally arrived. However, to be honest, we found ourselves feeling nervous throughout the day, if not for the weeks leading up to that day. We asked each other, "What's going to happen? What crazy thing might possibly happen this time?”.

Why were we nervous? Well…one concern was ‘vote count accuracy’ (as I’ll call it). Despite the government’s funding of billions of dollars (via the Help America Vote Act of 2002) to replace punch card voting systems with electronic systems after the 2000 election (where over 2 million ballots were disqualified), 2008 early-voting results indicated that malfunctioning machines existed at the polls. My cousin told me about an example that was even videotaped: several voters had actually selected Obama on the touch screen, and yet their votes were being registered as McCain, a phenomenon called "voter switching".

Additionally, other factors were looming overhead: (1) a data uploading problem identified last August had caused votes to be dropped altogether, (yikes, was this adequately fixed yet?) (2) “the Bradley affect”, and (3) the distinct possibility that pollsters might be wrong in their optimistic prediction favoring Obama. Finally, we were feeling uncertain how our nation would actually vote….by which I mean to say, and this is a sad thing for me to say, if the country could vote Bush into office a second term….what would stop us from making an equally incomprehensible decision in the 2008 election?

Of course, at that very moment and time, we had no idea to what extent these issues might be played out. The closer the race, the more critical they would become. And so, all we could do was wait & see, like the rest of the United States, and the world, as it turned out.

The Evening.
While waiting for the first states to close their polls, we had dinner at a small Lower East End restaurant. As we left the restaurant, we were drawn in like magnets to a nearby bar having a giant flat-screen t.v. and live coverage. We heard the first news of the night -- things were looking good. Virginia polls had closed & the state went blue for the first time in something like 44 years. Florida might even turn democrat as well. We heard one guy prognosticate, “it’s gonna be a landslide”. We didn’t believe him entirely, but we did start to feel pretty good, as if maybe this was going to work out after all.

Next stop: “Election Plaza”. We arrived to a very large, but quiet, crowd. Unusually quiet, I would add. Big crowds usually sway with constant motion - people moving in & out or squeezing by each other in a “herd-of-cattle”-like togetherness. But not this crowd. We were the only ones trying to make a move. Everyone else was oddly stationary. Then we noticed they were all facing the same direction & absolutely everyone was looking up. We stopped and looked up ourselves. And we immediately understood what it was all about - why the crowd was hushed and under something of a trance. History was just about to unfold.

It was 11pm by this time (eastern DST). The big screen t.v. above us showed polls in the major states had already closed or had significant votes tallied: Ohio, Florida and Iowa all changed from red to blue states. Colorado and New Mexico looked favorable. Then the television broadcaster announced that they believed Obama had won. Everyone still waited for the definitive moment – when it became official – but the excitement was building. We looked at the data map and it showed Obama had about 290 electoral college votes; he needed 270 to win. McCain had around 170.

We finally heard the news we were waiting for: McCain conceded the election to Obama, officially ending the election. The transformation at the plaza was swift and sudden: a massive celebration was now underway! The entire crowd was jumping up & down and cheering and hollering and hugging and waving their arms. And yes, there were lots of uncontrollable tears of joy at the realization of what had just happened. It was an intense moment of pride and hope.

The broadcast switched to Phoenix, Arizona for McCain's concession speech. The crowd at Rockefeller Plaza, after some isolated initial unrest, grew rapidly quiet and respectful. We all listened closely to McCain. He was gracious that night, I think we could all agree.

As more states closed their polls, the tally board continued to change. The count for Obama eventually grew to over 300 electoral votes….then 330. The broadcast moved to Grant Park in Chicago. We were waiting to see and hear president-elect Obama for the first time. I was awestruck to see such a large crowd gathered there – maybe 200,000 people, maybe more. It was huge. This touched me to no end, seeing as I come from that part of the world myself. The cameras panned in on celebrity Oprah and on long-time activist Jesse Jackson, each unabashedly moved to tears. We saw many more “every day kind of people” at the park – each and every one of them celebrating like there was no tomorrow. And who were these every day kind of people? Blacks and whites and asians and hispanics and who cares what race – it didn’t matter. We were all sharing the same moment.

We waited to see the Obama family come out on stage. Meanwhile, the broadcast switched to Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza and Harlem. And we saw the same thing. People dancing. People smiling. People deeply moved to tears. People reveling. People rejoicing. Next, it was on to Japan – more of the same. Then, Kenya, Africa – where Obama’s father is from - his grandmother was leading a celebratory dance. Then we realized what a large scale this was. The whole world seemed to be celebrating. To realize this was certainly one of the many emotional moments of the day. Even if you understood intellectually that the world was watching the outcome, it’s different to see that the world was also celebrating the outcome.

It was time for president-elect Obama's speech. Anyone who watched it knows it was well done. It was riveting, uplifting, and realistic. We watched in awe as if it was history-in-the-making....because it was. After Obama’s speech ended, the stage cleared at Grant Park, and the crowd at Rockefeller plaza started to disperse. We simply had to go raise a glass to celebrate this momentous occasion. Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 is a day that will never be forgotten. Future generations will learn about this day in history class. We experienced it live. It felt like hope. Like optimism. Like the future. And importantly, it represents a turning page in race-equality, which I certainly applaud loudly.

Thank you to those who supported Obama. And to those who did not support Obama, some in my immediate family, I hope you will try to be positive. There will be change. It won’t be easy for anyone. We all recognize this will be a difficult presidency, no matter who would have won. Between the financial crisis and the continuing wars, and all the other “internal problems” we face (rising health care costs, education, and oil dependency, to name just a few), we need strong leadership now more than ever. I believe Obama brings us hope. But, he will not be perfect. He will not save the world. He will not change things overnight. Let’s not expect these things.

Obama now needs to to “walk the talk”. Campaign promises mean nothing if there’s no substance behind them. Time will tell – it always does. His every move will be scrutinized, perhaps more than any other president’s has been. We can hope for a more uniting and conciliatory approach….globally. We can hope for strong leadership at a time when our country sorely needs it. President-elect Obama, please don’t let us down.

PS. I’m still not sure if the problems associated with “vote count accuracy” have been fixed. This election was not close at all, so I suppose only the voting officials understand what they’re really up against. And I hope they continue working on its integrity. A country that espouses the importance of democracy to the world cannot afford not to have a voting system with the highest level of integrity, right? P.P.S. – sorry I don’t have more pictures….I can’t believe I forgot my camera on such a historic night. P.P.S.S - Please share your comments with me about this post. I would be most interested to hear your perspectives of this historic event.

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