I was fortunate to be invited to study and observe the US Elections of 8 Nov. 2016. So here I am in Washington, DC, thanks to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. The US election result is out. We have Republican Donald Trump as President-Elect who boasts that “when you are a star, [women] let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by [their genitals]. You can do anything.” He is vitriolically against Muslims, immigrants and Mexicans. Losing the popular vote – 47% against his classy Yale-educated Democratic rival Hilary Clinton’s 48% – he won partly because of Clinton’s vote for the Iraqi war, her support for unrestricted abortion rights even for late term pregnancies, and her earning millions through speaking fees and donations from foreigners seen as working against the US. Trump’s repeated insult “Crooked Hillary” seemed to reverberate and stick. His xenophobia and sexism seemed to attract the votes of the less educated, especially those whose jobs had moved abroad, while most educated women were solidly behind Clinton.
The US map marked in red for where Trump won is similar when compared to a red density-map of evangelical churches. Trump was certainly helped by the evangelical Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the more famous Rev. Billy Graham, who said
“There’s two different pictures and two different visions for America. … [Trump] is a changed man. … I have people that say, ‘Well I don’t like Donald Trump, I don’t like what he says [about his grabbing women by their genitals].’ Well I don’t like what he said either, I promise I don’t like it. But those are things that he said 11 years ago, not something that he said today. … I think Donald Trump has changed. I think God is working on his heart and in his life.”
Ballot Scanned and Stored: Paper Trail
He added later on Face Book, “the difference between the candidates is night and day. … while Trump’s comments might be ‘crude,’ Hillary Clinton’s progressive agenda is godless and cannot be defended.”
Graham was untruthful. Trump’s racist rants are very recent. Trump has to change or America is finished as a nation of free citizens with inviolable rights.
In contrast, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame described Clinton as a Christian who teaches Sunday School and marks up her Bible and carries it about wherever she goes. She certainly held onto that traditional, centuries-old Christian virtue of marriage-for-life which is spurned by American-inspired evangelical churches when she stood firmly by her repeatedly straying husband.
A Republican woman conference speaker argued that Trump’s election was breaking through the glass ceiling for women because his campaign manager was a woman. I asked her how women can be safe with Trump around. Telling her that Trump had objectified women, I asked, given his violent boast, how his campaign manager can feel safe around him. The contrasting views about the same people showed how much spin the election and news reporting about it are subject to.
American women in our group, all highly educated, were in literal tears over Clinton’s defeat and were the only white demographic group that overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. Education is the only firewall against spin and ignorance.
Now to things I saw that we in Sri Lanka can benefit from. We are going through various discussions and partisan accusations as to who is responsible for the delayed Local Government Elections. US presidential elections are set every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of the relevant year. It happens like clockwork. No one needs to set the date. When a president dies in office, the Vice President takes over. Dr. Nasim Zaidi, the Chief Election Commissioner of India who is here said that in India the prerogative to set the date of elections is entirely his Commission’s. Where the law is silent, by court decisions what the Commission decides is not subject to judicial challenge. At this time as we draft a new constitution, it is opportune to spell these powers out explicitly in the constitution. We need a scheme where the date of elections is set not to suit the interests of a political party, and entrench that in the constitution.
Voting Machines and Turnout
We have been discussing voting machines in Sri Lanka in the context of speedier results. However, we do quite well with hand-counting and get the results out by the morning after the polls. So the cost of getting results a few hours earlier may not be justified.
US-wide, seventy percent of people vote with pen on paper. To permit auditing, the ballot paper is scanned into a machine and stored there to form a paper trail. The image is transmitted to the counting center but the machine is never online to avoid hacking. However, many counting machines after testing have been prohibited by US officials. Further, the State of Virginia which used machines for the last elections, I was told when I visited, had gone back to paper this time because this election was expected to be contentious and the state therefore did not wish to take any risks. This shows that reliability is indeed an issue with machines, even though a vendor at my lunch table was assuring a potential buyer that his machine is “100% accurate.”
Moreover, US turnout is abysmally low, estimated at 55.6% yesterday. Voting machines are therefore seen as a means of shortening lines and thereby attracting voters to turn up. In Sri Lanka, the last presidential elections saw a turnout of 81.52% which is near one of the highest rates, Belgium’s 87%. So enhancing turnout may not be relevant to our needs.
The postal vote (or absentee ballot) was being extensively used in the US to increase voter participation – so much so that 30% of the electorate had already voted before yesterday.
Why don’t we too use that? It would eliminate long queues and having to take leave to vote, and allow our displaced and overseas citizens to participate. After all, our laws guarantee the franchise to every citizen. Therefore, voter participation which we measure as a proportion of the registered voters who vote, is really inaccurate because we register neither a) those who are displaced and have no address, nor b) our citizens abroad – although our laws and even the Convention on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the franchise to every citizen. If they are accounted for, turnout might be much lower than 81.52%.
Some object that with the postal ballot secrecy is lost when an official opens the envelope with ones ballot to record it. Not so. Here in the US they use two envelopes. The outer one with identity for checking and an inner envelop with the actual ballot which will be pooled with others for processing.
I saw Virginians who had not pre-registered coming, registering on the spot and voting. However, their vote was treated like postal-ballots. An official would examine his credentials later and everything being in order, his ballot would be passed on for counting. There is no reason why we cannot do this ourselves. We need to be proactive and innovative rather than saying “That is not how it is done.”
I saw provision for disabled persons to drive up in their special cars and vote from the curbside. US law requires that the disabled must be able to vote without any assistance. Those who come in have broad doorways and ramps for their wheelchairs and vote using machines which they may operate without any assistance – with provisions for magnifying glasses, touch screens, and puffing operations for those without hands. However, at the polling stations I visited, the Election Official told me that over the previous 4 years no one had used those machines. Such wasteful political correctness is what Trump tapped into.
What Trump Cannot Verbalize even if he Tried
Clinton gave her magnanimous concession speech today Wednesday, which we viewed live. She regretted not having broken the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” for women – contrary to our Republican speaker’s claim. Expressing thoughts that contrasted with the white-only world Trump offered (threatening the rule of law by saying he would not accept defeat because it would be a rigged result), she expressed the best in American society:
“Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it. It also enshrines other things: the rule of law, the principle that we are equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values too and we must defend them.”
It is what we, 500 of us from 80 countries, had been brought to the US to see. I hope that President-Elect Trump too will learn from her.