Beyond Losing


I have never been an avid politico. I have never worked for a campaign, never served in student government — indeed, I’ve only voted twice in my life, including yesterday. Yet there comes a time in every student’s life when they succumb to a bout of idealism and they decide to get involved.

This desire struck me a few weeks ago while I was attending a meeting of the HLS Democrats (for the free pizza, of course). They were organizing students to travel to New Hampshire and serve as poll watchers for the party. I wasn’t quite sure what a poll watcher was, but after “the Florida incident” the need seemed pressing, so I heartily enlisted.

Allow me to tell you what a poll watcher is. A poll watcher gets up at 4:30 a.m. in order to make it to the polls on time. A poll watcher sits on a folding metal chair in an elementary school gymnasium for 12 hours to make sure no eligible voter is turned away. A poll watcher walks to the nearest Dunkin Donuts 25 minutes away to buy a cup of coffee so that he doesn’t fall asleep, and, by the way, New Hampshire doesn’t have sidewalks (I hope this is high on Senator Sununu’s priority list, though Republicans aren’t known for projects that benefit actual people). Finally, a poll watcher must argue with 80-year-old women who run the polls every time they break New Hampshire election laws, which — in Manchester’s Ward 12 at least — proved to be very infrequently.

Poll-watching also gave some cause for optimism. A poll watcher gets to see hundreds of people register to vote for the first time (in New Hampshire, voters are allowed to register at the polls). A poll watcher gets to see people young and old, rich and poor of course, but they also get to see people who are handicapped, people who are blind, people who have mild Down Syndrome, people with Parkinson’s disease, people covered in paint taking time out of their short lunch break, people bussed in from nursing homes — none of whom get turned away. If they need help casting their ballots, the law requires they receive it. When I saw an 80-year-old white male poll worker help a young black woman who was legally blind cast her ballot — a woman who required a seeing-eye dog just to find her way to the polls — it was enough to convince even this cynic that maybe democracy does work. Maybe the images we saw during our last election really were the exception rather than the rule.

With that said, there is still a feeling of sadness on campus today. I would argue that Harvard is growing increasingly conservative in its old age (especially after my contracts class), but quite a few liberals remain. I overheard one young woman today say she felt like crying after watching the poll numbers come in. Well, fellow Democrats, we should be sad. And we should be angry, but not because we feel some grave injustice was done on election day. Leave that for Al Sharpton.

We should be angry at ourselves. We failed to fully articulate our beliefs. We failed to show America why it is a very bad idea to give President Bush the rubber stamp he so desperately desired. Our leadership, Daschle and Gephardt (perhaps the most charismatic leaders since silent Calvin Coolidge) have shown the true depths of their inability to mount any real challenges.

But finally, as with any loss, we need to find a way to channel our anger and our sadness into a desire to effect change. You may have watched TV last night, hoping that the numbers would come out your way, but an election is not a lottery. I feel sadness today, not because we lost, but because I didn’t do enough to help my party win.

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