As soon as my plane touched down at Dulles International Airport, conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election. It seemed as if it was all anyone was talking about - and with good reason! Journalists, news anchors and even taxi drivers referred to it as the most important election of our time.
One of the most striking differences between UK and US politics is the sheer amount of television adverts. Every time I switched on the TV I was barraged with wall-to-wall advertisements from Democrats, Republicans, Independents and PACs. The states of Virginia and Maryland were voting on various questions (six, seven and what felt like every number in between!) and these adverts fitted neatly in between ones for president, Senate and City Council.
Despite the constant adverts, it was fabulous to experience the electric atmosphere that was building even before voters went to the polls.
The day before election day I visited the capitol and had a tour by a staffer who worked for a Democratic Member of Congress. Having previously interned in the House of Representatives, it was fantastic to re-visit old haunts and even have the opportunity to sit on the floor of the House. Even with the Representatives out of town, the complex was abuzz with talk of the impending election. Being in a place of such history and prominence reminded me how important democracy and the process of voting is. It is through our actions at the ballot box that we can influence democracy, participating in a ritual that is a basic human right for all.
Election day soon dawned and after an early tour of the White House, I traveled the short distance to Alexandria, VA to visit a polling station. My friend had already voted, and as we turned the corner to enter the building, I was unprepared for the site that waited in front of me. A large group of volunteers stood outside the station, leaflets in hand ready to influence any voter who may remain undecided. A line of yellow sticky tape lay on the sidewalk, its presence reminding the volunteers that they were not allowed to distribute political material over that specific point. The volunteers were passionate in their cause, and it was great to chat with those who had been on the campaign trail for months. The atmosphere inside the polling station was different to what I expected. It was extremely calm, with volunteers such as my friend checking voter ID's and directing people to the voting area. What hit me was the steady turnout, something which would continually increase as the day carried on.
Polling stations on the east coast began to close at 19.00, and returns slowly started to trickle in. What amazed me was how quickly states were called either for president Obama or Mitt Romney. Perhaps the UK can learn a thing or too! When Ohio was called for the president, we knew that he had won four more years, and a night of celebrating could begin! I left my hotel for the quick walk to the White House, where jubilant crowds had already began to gather. The temperature was freezing, but that did not stop us from having a great time! Students from nearby George Washington University and Georgetown were chanting the president's name and "four more years", their homemade banners and signs adding to the festivities. Individuals had climbed up trees to get a better look at the crowd that seemed to expand every few minutes. Individuals were running across the street in celebration, and cars and buses honked their horns to join in with the crowd. Similar scenes had broken out across other areas of DC and police struggled to contain the growing crowds on U Street.
The atmosphere remained as electric the following day when the president and his family returned to Washington. As Marine One flew over our heads it was great to know that president Obama was back in town, and determined to get back to business.
I feel very privileged and lucky to have been in Washington at a time of such importance and excitement. Speaking to many individuals it was evident that the result of this election was perhaps even more important than 2008. President Obama delivered a decisive victory, confirming his presidency for a further four years, with the American people choosing a clearly defined domestic and foreign path for their country. The Senate remains in Democratic control, with a record total of 20 women now serving as Senators. This is clear progress, and a result that I feel will continue to inspire and encourage women across America and across the globe to become politically and socially active in their local communities.
The eyes of the world now look towards the inauguration of Barack Obama on 21 January 2013 and what the next four years may bring.