Blog | Observing Another Country’s Election Changed Me

Tonya Wichman headshot

Tonya Wichman is director of the Board of Elections in Defiance County, Ohio.

I am an election official in rural Defiance County, Ohio. The way politics are in America right now, my job is very challenging much of the time. Last year, I almost quit. I needed a fresh perspective.

During a professional conference in January 2023, I met Avery Davis-Roberts, a staff member at The Carter Center. I praised the Center’s work in mental health and international election observation. In June, I was shocked to learn Davis-Roberts had recommended me to serve as a short-term observer of the upcoming presidential election in Sierra Leone. My first passport arrived on a Monday, and the invitation came two days later. I felt I was being called to this mission.

  • Tonya Wichman at a polling place in Sierra Leone.

    Tonya Wichman (right) observes voting in Sierra Leone.

After four flights and 25 hours, I arrived in Freetown. Looking out my hotel window, I began to sense that this trip would give me the perspective I had been praying for. The ramshackle housing, the children begging for food, people selling whatever they could to make money…it was a bit overwhelming. Still, I could see the joy and pride of people who were doing the best they could.

My observer group was deployed to the Kenema District five hours away. Two of our three vehicles broke down before we got out of Freetown, and the air conditioning failed on the third. Well, I thought, you can whine or you can appreciate the beautiful view with the windows rolled down. Our accommodations had power and running water, luxuries in Kenema that I take for granted at home.

On the day before the election, we visited the Kenema elections commissioner, who was playing festive music in her office because she was so excited to let people vote. Her excitement restored my hope and faith in what I do: I let people vote! My team in Defiance works hard to ensure free, safe, and secure elections. They practice democracy, and I get to be a part of it.

I can honestly say this mission to West Africa changed my life. I needed a new perspective, and this trip gave me that gift.

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