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Polls apart

Friday, October 26th, 2012


When Jimmy Carter visited Nepal in 2008 to observe the first election after the end of the conflict, he observed polling in some urban centres and immediately pronounced them ‘free and fair’.

As it turned out, the election that voted the Maoists into the Constituent Assembly as the largest party was ridden with widespread voter intimidation and booth capturing. The Maoists would probably have won anyway, but with a smaller margin.

Given allegations of rampant election process irregularities in the United States in the run-up to presidential elections on 6 November, it looks like Carter should actually devote more attention to electoral irregularities in his country in addition to advising developing countries.

In the run-up to poll day, the US media has been rife with reports of attempts at voter suppression, voter fraud, misuse of absentee ballots, and campaigns to intimidate African American families, students, and the poor who may vote Democratic.

But by far the most serious allegations are about voter suppression in crucial swing-states such as Ohio, where pro-Republican Party activists have been trying to intimidate voters likely to vote for the Democratic Party.

A recent survey showed that 11 per cent of American voters do not have a driving licence or photo ID. Among people above 65, this goes up to 18 per cent and a quarter of African Americans do not have IDs necessary for voting. Conservative groups in Ohio have been using the excuse of voter fraud to install large billboards to warn voters that they need photo ID even when it is not true. This is done to intimidate Democratic party voters from showing up at polling booths on election day. In 2008, 64 per cent of African Americans voted, a higher turnout than usual, that is credited with Barack Obama’s victory.

Recently, billionaire William Louis-Dreyfus put an ad in The New York Times in which he accused some political entities of suppressing people of ‘a different political persuasion’ from voting. Louis-Drefyus went on to describe voter suppression as an assault on democracy and pledged $1 million to a non-partisan group to revent this practice.

I emigrated from Nepal to the United States in 1958, but never since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965 have I seen as much discussion on suppression and electoral fraud as is happening during this election campaign. We Americans preach democracy in our country and throughout the world and sometimes that makes America an international laughing stock. But if democracy is weakened in America, I believe it will also be weaker elsewhere.

America has changed. The level of ethics in society is on the decline. The cost of running for office is high at all levels and the necessity of campaign financing corrupts elected officials, making them beholden to large donors. The Supreme Court is more political than it ever was in the past, but it did recently support the Justice Department’s efforts to prevent using ‘suppression methods’ to prevent poor people from voting in several Florida counties. The Justice Department has invoked the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to prevent voter suppression in five counties in Florida.

Obviously, voter intimidation and suppression in the US is not as serious as in developing countries, but it is serious enough for it to threaten the outcome of this closely-fought election. The question is: why is the United States imitating the worse forms of electoral practice from the Third World?

The other worry is about vote tampering. A large percentage of the votes in Florida are from absentee ballots or people voting early and this is where the potential for fraud is high. Yet, absentee voting has tripled since 1980 and now makes up 20 per cent of all votes in America. Absentee ballots and postal voting, where the chances of fraud are highest, can now determine the outcome of elections.

With 18 per cent of Nepalis living outside Nepal, the issue of absentee voting is going to be an issue in Nepal as well. But if the Carter Centre can advise Nepal on elections, why can’t Nepalis also have the right to advise Americans in controlling voter fraud? It may not be as outlandish as it seems to think that some day Nepal’s past Election Commissioners who have conducted relatively clean elections despite huge challenges could be deployed to monitor US elections also.

Ram Pant is the President and CEO of Cambridge Global Services, a Think Tank located in Massachusetts, USA.

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