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Should Presidents of the AHA and OAH Be Elected? What the Data Show

Every year the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians elect new leaders. Winners are announced in the monthly and quarterly newsletters, but the precise results—the number of votes the candidates received—are not. According to both the AHA and the OAH, the election data have not been included in the announcements of results for at least the past seven years as a result of complaints that such data embarrasses the losers.  

The two organizations follow different practices. The AHA openly publishes the election tallies in the organization’s Annual Reports. The OAH, on the other hand, does not publish election figures at all. However, the OAH’s Director of Publications, Michael Regoli, was able to provide HNN with election data for the years 2000-2001 and 2003-2005.

Different Approaches

While both organizations’ elections, specifically in regards to the president and president-elect slots, are substantially dictated by member-elected Nominating Boards, the OAH’s Nominating Board is significantly more powerful. That’s because over at the OAH, the Nominating Board selects one person for the position of president-elect. The selected person is placed on the ballot, and his/her race is “uncontested” (i.e. there is only one candidate for that race each year). And that’s basically it, because the Board’s selected candidate serves as president-elect for one year, and then the next year he/she automatically becomes president of the organization. (After serving for one year as president-elect, the Board’s candidate is placed on the annual OAH ballot in another uncontested race, this time, of course, for president. But the "election" is a pure formality.)  

Why doesn’t the OAH offer its members a choice when it comes to selecting a future president? Again, the “embarrassment” factor comes into play. According to OAH executive director Lee Formwalt, the OAH Board has been selecting each year’s sole president-elect candidate since 1978 precisely because the Board believes that it just isn’t “fair” to pit two equally qualified candidates against one another when one is ultimately doomed to be branded a “loser.” Why the uncontested president and president-elect slots are even on the ballot, then, remains an unanswered question.  

At the AHA, things are much different. The AHA’s Nominating Board selects two people for the position of president-elect and then lets members of the organization choose between them. The winner of the race serves as president-elect for one year, and then, much like at the OAH, he/she is placed on the following year’s ballot for the uncontested president slot. This, however, has not always been the way things were done at the AHA. Prior to the 1970s the AHA selected its president-elect by means similar to those currently in effect at the OAH.  

Earlier this year HNN published a column that described how the AHA and OAH elect their presidents by different means. The column posed the question, “Why did the [AHA and OAH] go their separate ways when it comes to electing their leaders?” Surprisingly, that question sparked a hubbub when Hanna H. Gray—former president of the University of Chicago and chairman of the AHA committee that revised the organization’s election procedures during the 1970s—responded to HNN’s appeal for more information. Jesse Lemisch asserted that Professor Gray’s explanation “utterly misses the pressures from below which led to the situation that she describes.” Specifically, Lemisch chided Professor Gray for failing to note that her committee was convened in response to a democratic movement taking place not only within the AHA but in the larger society as well.

Given the changes made at the AHA during the 1970s, why does the OAH’s president-elect slot continue to be determined by the organization’s Nominating Board? Recently, the OAH’s Director of Publications, Michael Regoli, explained, “it has been understood here in the office that the role of OAH president is an honor bestowed upon a leader within the profession, and therefore should not be a ‘race’ between individuals.” Ironically, while the 1970s were marked by a democratic movement over at the AHA, it was actually in the fall of 1976 that the OAH Executive Board began considering its current single-candidate scheme for president-elect. According to an OAH board meeting abstract from the fall of 1976,"dissatisfaction" was expressed over" contested elections for President." Soon thereafter, the OAH published a statement regarding election procedures for OAH presidents. It was at the board’s fall 1978 meeting that the motion for “only one candidate for president” was ultimately passed.  

Finding the Statistics

For most of its history, the American Historical Association published its annual election results in its monthly newsletter, Perspectives. In June 1997, however, the AHA Council voted to announce annual election tallies only in the Association's Annual Report. This change of practice was apparently a response to complaints that publishing statistical results and then sending them out to all of the organization’s members was embarrassing for the losers (particularly in regards to those who lost in high-profile races such as “president-elect”), especially when the losers were creamed.

The AHA succeeded. Election data have been difficult to comb through as a result of the change. Recently, however, the AHA has begun posting electronic copies of annual reports on its website. That process, however, is not yet complete—currently only annual reports for the years 1997, 1998, and 2000-2004 are available.  

For similar reasons, the OAH, though somewhat earlier, also changed the means by which it reports election results. The OAH follows a practice similar to the AHA's—winners and losers are announced in the organization’s newsletter, but the tallies of the votes are not. And unlike the AHA, the OAH doesn’t publish election data anywhere. According to Lee Formwalt there just hasn’t been a systematic effort to preserve that kind of data in the last two decades due to an “unofficial” organization policy. Furthermore, all OAH files five years and older are archived in Indianapolis. That explains the incomplete OAH data included along with this article.

What the Numbers Have to Say

So what do the available data have to say about the AHA and OAH’s vastly different election procedures?

Interestingly, what the data collected for this article reveals is this: losing by a landslide shouldn’t be taken too personally. In 2004, for example, the election results show that Leon Litwack lost as president of the AHA in a landslide, yet in the 1980s he was elected president of the OAH for the term 1986-1987. At any rate, landslides in high-profile races, such as president-elect, aren’t all that uncommon. From 1994 to 2004, for example, 3 of the 11 president-elect races for the AHA were “landslides” (that is, races in which one candidate received 60% or more of the votes). That’s almost a third of those races, and interestingly, the winners in all three of these president-elect landslides were women. All three women received between 60% and 64% of the votes cast. Another woman won with 57% of the vote. (But two women lost.) Aside from their gender, landslide winners seem to have had nothing else in common except their popularity.

Although there were just three “landslides” in president-elect AHA races between 1994 and 2004, only one of the eleven races was particularly close; that race occurred in 2003, and the winner ( James J. Sheehan) won by just 28 votes, or just 2% more than his opponent (Bonnie G. Smith). Other than the 2003 election, the next closest elections were decided 53% to 47% (1999) and a 54% to 46% (1996).

Because there is not a contested election for the OAH’s prestigious president-elect slot, one might wonder, why the organization puts the position on the OAH ballot at all? Election is automatic, after all. Surprisingly, winners often receive fewer votes than have been cast in the elections for other races. In 2001, for example, the uncontested president-elect candidate received 474 votes, but the total number of votes cast for the first “executive board” pair was 528 votes.* Likewise, in 2003 the president-elect candidate received 864 votes, while 177 ballots were left blank for that race (in 2004, 406 were cast, and 110 blank, and in 2005, 771 were cast for president-elect, and 172 were blank). These numbers either indicate opposition to the winner or plain apathy about a race that is foreordained. (Side note: the number of ballots cast in OAH president-elect elections vary considerably from year to year even as the organization's membership remains constant. In 2003, 1041 ballots were cast; in 2004, 516; and in 2005, 943.)

Given that AHA president-elect races are contested, that organization’s data might shed some light on whether or not significant numbers of OAH “blank” ballots are meaningful. Take the election of Robert Darnton. In 1997 he received 58% of the votes cast for president-elect. Of the total of 3,292 ballots cast, just 87 were left blank for his race. By way of comparison, in 1998 when Darnton then ran for the uncontested president slot, he received just 2,500 votes even though 3,237 ballots were cast. Thus, despite Darnton’s strong hold over a majority of the ballots cast for president-elect in 1997, and furthermore, despite the fact that only 1/50 the of the ballots cast in 1997 were left blank for Darnton’s race, about a fifth of the ballots were “blank” for his presidential race in 1998. The 1998 figure is about the same percentage of ballots left blank for the OAH’s uncontested races. It would appear that the percentage of blank ballots in both organizations' president-elect races are similar. It’s still hard to say, nonetheless, whether or not those ballots are meaningful: are they blank because they are protest ballots, or are they blank because there just isn’t any point in casting a vote in a race that has essentially already been decided?

*Data regarding the total number of ballots cast in this election was unavailable.


  • AHA Presidential Races 1994-2004
  • OAH Presidential Races 2000 to 2005

  • Other AHA Elections 1994-2004
  • Other OAH Elections 2000-2001, 2003-2005