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From the President's column in the November 1998 Perspectives

Your Vote--It Makes a Difference

Joseph C. Miller, November 1998

Ballots allowing you to vote for the AHA's 1999 elected officers reached you and 15,000 other members of the Association early in September. If you noticed one more communication from the Washington office at that busy time of year—for everyone, whether preparing for teaching in the fall semester or not—and looked inside to find a 32-page pamphlet of election rules, candidates' names and professional qualifications, and their positions on issues, you may have set it aside to give it the attention it deserved later, when you had the time to study it. After all, it features no fewer than 23 AHA members standing for 12 different offices, along with numerous issues. All that seems to demand a significant commitment of scarce time to consider properly. Or you may have doubted that your vote would really make a difference, in an association as large as ours, and set the ballot aside in favor of other, more immediate items on a crowded list of priorities. You may even have wondered how you could make responsible choices among uniformly outstanding scholars whom you don't know personally, even after reading their positions on the vast array of issues that historians face today. In the worst-case scenario, some of you will have glanced through the candidates to find that none of them had taken a stance on the one issue that may be of overriding personal concern to you. It's hard work, this voting, as democracies everywhere in the world continually rediscover.

If any of those reactions—or others—has kept you from marking that ballot and sending it off, you were not alone; fewer than a third of the members of the AHA vote in most elections. But, if this issue of Perspectives reaches you as soon as we intend it to and you still mean to vote, it's not too late! Ballots received at AHA headquarters by November 1 will be counted. That's one significant way of expressing your convictions to make a difference.

But if you haven't managed, or don't wish, to vote this year—or if this issue of Perspectives reaches you too late to remind you to respond—you also have the opportunity to make a difference in how everyone votes in the future. The election material that came into your hands this year along with the ballot is the product of the AHA Nominating Committee, chaired for 1998 by Lillie Johnson Edwards of Drew University; you, or your colleagues, elect three of its members each year. Professor Edwards and this year's Nominating Committee, in consultation with the Council, have revised the election material to present the election process and the candidates to you more clearly. I found the result, displayed in typography and format that make the structure of the information leap up from each page, much more appealing and intelligible, even stimulating in the way they highlighted issues on the candidates' minds. Next year's committee, chaired by Leo Spitzer of Dartmouth College, is eager to learn members'—that is your—reactions to the new format in the hope of developing the voting process beyond the improvements made thus far. The Association thus needs your attention, and your response, to continue to define election processes that best meet members' needs. Even if you don't vote, it's not too late to write Professor Spitzer, in care of Sharon Tune here at the AHA office, to express your views on the procedures that will help Council and the elected committees to guide the AHA along lines that serve you.

It's also not too late to offer the candidacy of a colleague—or your own—to the 1999 Nominating Committee. Such names should reach the executive director of the Association by December 15. The committee considers volunteers and member-recommended candidates very seriously, and most ballots include at least one nominee whose personal interest in holding office, beyond professional qualifications, has recommended him or her to the committee. The Association thrives on direct expressions of interest and member participation.

The AHA constitution provides further for nomination by petition, with signatures of at least 100 members of the Association and a declaration of the office for which the candidate will stand. The committee automatically includes the names of such candidates on its own ballot, specifying the separate origin of their nomination. Petitions for candidates should reach the chair of the Nominating Committee by July 1. If you don't think you're being heard, take one of the direct approaches thus provided.

In spite of the broad responsiveness of the Nominating Committee (to member concerns) that follows from annual elections of its members—what those on the committee hear from associates, from members who write in to Perspectives, from conversations at the annual meeting, occasionally from concerns that reach them through Council--and despite the direct voice provided for all members by our nominating procedures, not everyone's candidate, nor everyone's issue will appear on each year's ballot. If you haven't voted recently, you may not be aware of the positions represented by candidates elected to office last year or the year before; they, of course, are now the senior officers of the Association. Nor does any single ballot reveal the broad range of voices and experiences—gender, geography, ethnic background, type of employment, as well as field specialization—that the committee offers to you through its nominees. The new election material clearly identifies more of these qualifications, indicating the institutions and academic interests of the veterans whom this year's candidates will replace, though not repeating their statements of candidacy. The Nominating Committee carefully balances each year's 23 candidates against the 24 continuing incumbents, to keep as many representatives as possible of the membership's diverse interests rotating triennially through office. You'll be most effective in influencing the composition of the Association's complement of 36 elected officers if you vote every year.

Your vote will also make more of a difference if you consider the candidates' likely contribution to the welfare of the Association as a whole, as well as whether they represent field or other professional interests that you may pursue in other contexts. It's often difficult for members to resist voting for scholars who share their own regional expertise or theoretical persuasion, if only because the names and intellectual standing of such candidates are familiar and respected. But the AHA does not function as an assemblage of specialized subject fields, and certainly not as an arena for competition among them; we all understand the fundamental complementarity among our specialized interests, and converting AHA elections to contests on those terms serves no professional interest. Subject- and method-defined interests are better developed when like-minded specialists pursue them within the settings of other associations, formed explicitly for the purpose. That is why we have formed so many historical associations of defined character, 104 of them formally affiliated to the AHA, and many of those presenting programs of their own each year in conjunction with the AHA annual meeting. But the broader, inclusive, professional focus of the AHA means that a vote for scholarly emphasis is likely to have more meaning in one of them than in AHA elections. That's also why affiliated societies have wisely refrained from advocating the AHA candidacies of their own members. Even though recent Nominating Committees have rotated pairs of candidacies to ensure that the three presidents always include one Americanist, a Europeanist, and someone from the other regional fields—as one among the many ways we acknowledge the diversity of our members—and also have ensured the presence of a graduate student, a public historian, and a historian from the two-year college system on Council, the candidates so nominated speak to issues of concern to all members when they take office. Correspondingly, they give you reasons to vote for them that are far more relevant to AHA business than "constituency" politics.

Beyond voting, you also have the opportunity to have your concerns represented among the members acting for the Association by serving on one of the 38 appointed committees. These committees have responsibilities ranging from selecting the winners of the Association's prizes to advising Council on matters of concern to women and minorities. Naming their prospective members is the responsibility of a different committee, the Committee on Committees, chaired by the president-elect, for whom at least a plurality of you voted last year, and made up of members whom you elect annually. Council then confirms appointments from this committee's list of nominees at the annual meeting in January. The four members of the "C-on-C" work long hours to find appointees competent to cover the wide range of expertise involved on all of these hard-working bodies, but they will do their jobs even better if you volunteer to serve in one for which you feel qualified, or if you send the names of qualified colleagues to the president-elect—this year, Robert Darnton—at the AHA; names received by November 1 should reach the Committee on Committees in time for its members to consider them for the coming year's appointments.

The elected officers of the AHA don't—or shouldn't have to—set Association policy, or name its numerous appointees to committees, in a vacuum. We know that we serve a "membership organization," one that exists to serve the interests of those who pay their dues, and of all others throughout the profession who share our members' concerns.

The Nominating Committee tries to shape each year's slate of candidates, and Council—for whom at least some of you have also voted—seeks to formulate Association policy in response to your interests. We all welcome the guidance of more of those we want to represent than we usually hear from through the voting process. I invite you to make this the year in which those elected assume their offices with a sense of a clear mandate from the members—or if not this election, then in the ensuing preparations for the next one. Your vote, or your participation in developing better nominating and appointing procedures for your Association, makes all the difference.

—Joseph C. Miller (University of Virginia) is president of the AHA.