Published in Beijing Review, October 26, 2012.
Approximately 1818 words.
Those of us who are thousands of miles separated from that American election are looking on with just a little surprise as the enthusiasm and emotion generated by the 2012 event unfolds. Such vigor! Such controversy! So many ominous predictions! So many conflicting opinions. Does it all really matter? The week after the voting is all over are the conflicting parties and their partisans going to make up and forget the whole thing?
What everybody knows by now is that President Barack Obama is running for reelection after serving nearly four years in office, and that his vice president on the Democratic Party ticket is Joe Biden. Against them are a former Michigan governor’s son, an organizer, venture capitalist, and Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, a youthful member of the Congress from Wisconsin. By now, both are pretty well known, at least in stereotype, worldwide. Televised debates have been making both incumbents and challengers recognizable in many respects, with highlighting of differences aided by aggressive news commentators, especially right after the closing of the debate forums.
It has been somewhat interesting for the rest of the world that both presidential candidates have had a few years of life overseas, Romney with his Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church in France, and Obama in Indonesia in his boyhood. The modern presidency requires that the occupant of the office be, or get, surefooted on circumstances and potential problems on every continent and that in their utterances they do not make fools of themselves early on.
The very first matter to bear in mind about that election in the United States (that comes every four years), that is, “the presidential election,” is that vast numbers of candidates and issues are about to be voted on. The future president is about to be selected, to be sure—along with his vice president, who will succeed him in the event of something bad happening to him. But a third of the United States Senate will be elected. All of the House of Representatives is up for election, hundreds of individuals, and at the very outset we need to note that vast numbers of them are women.
Any number of state governorships are being contested, from coast to coast, in 50 states, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border and the Gulf of Mexico’s beaches. Many “Lieutenant Governors” are to be elected, along with Secretaries of State, Labor Commissioners, Treasurers, and other state officials, all of whom if elected will draw good salaries for maybe four years starting, probably, January 1, 2013. Americans who vote in advance by mail (“absentee ballot” perhaps) and who come to their designated polling place downtown or maybe down the street will normally have to cast their vote by 8:00PM in their time zone, or forget the whole thing. Ballots are likely to be counted in the County Courthouse (there are over 3,000 counties in the country); seldom will they be counted at the polling place by amateurs; it is a job for trusted public employees. Counting is seldom done by higher ranking officials. Of course, if there is a debate over accuracy or procedures or illegal actions, then officialdom will have its day.
A nationwide scandal with charge and countercharge about “who won” is most unlikely in the huge United States. Yet occasionally, as in 2000 in Florida, a mess may build up so that the local state election will ultimately get decided by the Courts. Long before Election Day, most likely, there have been local debates and publicity together with planning to try to make sure that the election will go well and be free from scandal. It would be nice to be able to say that over two hundred years of experience has guaranteed that all will go smoothly, but that is unlikely to be the case.
Other matters are settled at the election’s ballot boxes. Local and state issues, lots of them, appear on ballots all over the place. Shall marijuana (a common illegal drug) be legalized to be used like in social drinking? Will local libraries get more tax money next year? Shall the terms of office of various officials be limited (say, to three terms) or should judges be elected instead of appointed, or vice versa (the opposite). How about a local tax, maybe on restaurant meals? The number of ballot measures is vast. Also on some ballots will be volunteers for precinct committeemen and women for each of the major parties (the Republicans and the Democrats, usually). Those elected may choose the chairperson for a year or more; if an official gets seriously ill these lowly unpaid people may get to choose a successor for the rest of the term that person had coming.
Voting in a widespread and detailed presidential election like this one, therefore, is neither quick nor simple. It is true that some voters drop in at the Election place, cast a quick ballot for president, and hasten away, even proud of themselves. We certainly hope not! All those choices that take up a total of fifteen minutes or so are really important to American Society. It does make a considerable difference what kind of persons fill judgeships. Taxes can be either good, or bad. Complicated issues that most voters never heard of before are sitting there awaiting a considered decision—by the voters, not the bureaucrats.
Most states, I dare say, publish something resembling a “Voters’ Pamphlet” (although it may not always be widely distributed. I have our state document before me. “Oregon General Election, November 6, 2012” it says in big print; it also identifies the issuer as a lady Secretary of State and observes that the pamphlet will assist all who vote by mail. In black letters it demands: VOTE! One must be registered, it says, by October 16; also ballots must come in by 8pm on Election Day. These matters will certainly vary state by state. Here, voters who speak only Spanish and the “hearing impaired” are offered telephone numbers to help out.
A glance inside quickly reveals endless columns and head and shoulder photos submitted by hopeful candidates. First, however, is a long index, while the inside back page lists all candidates in alphabetical order. In our state, at least, the pamphlet happens to total some 134 pages and, regardless of cost, it arrived by mail at the abode of every registered voter in the state. As has been said, not all states by any means offer such a helpful crutch to voters, and electronic voting has become common. Everywhere, newspaper columns are full of election news for months ahead, and as election nears editorial pages hopefully offer advice of highly placed employees of newspaper publishers and the Internet is awash with commentary signed and otherwise. Biased? Of course. But subscribers long since knew about the basic opinions held by their local editors and allowed for or disregarded them. It’s part of the price of even having a local paper in American localities, towns, counties, and cities.
There is every reason for a citizen within our borders to be well informed by Election Day. (Smart phones and computers are having a major impact.) Nevertheless, people may remain totally confused on issues of foreign policy or domestic legislation, for schooling may have been inadequate on even the most significant events overseas, and both tax policies and medical legislation alternatives. The true qualifications of candidates for Governor, or Mayor, or Judge may well escape any of us, but thanks to our free press (with all its flaws), TV, radio, billboards, and printed matter sent through the mail we have for months had the opportunity to talk with friends and neighbors about both candidates and important issues. Oh, I know that many citizens still barely know the date of Election Day; some even stupidly remain ignorant of the nature of presidential candidates, but then the ignorance of much of humankind is renowned worldwide.
What is being suggested is that the complaining of many of us about a never changing government (in the U.S. at least) is not warranted, not justifiable, not necessary. The machinery of American elections has been in place from long, long ago. The ballot box is a powerful weapon indeed. Sadly, the “primary elections” last spring were the time to make any number of preliminary decisions, and far too many individuals among us just ignored the primaries as a waste of their time. So now, months later, they have to choose between candidates that other people nominated long ago. Amendments to state constitutions may have already been settled. School board jobs may already be filled? Unimportant? Not to parents looking for real quality educations for their children!
Elections don’t have to be dreary happenings. I think it fun to read a voters’ pamphlet, the forceful letters to the local editor, news of candidates skewering each other on one issue or another (or a personality trait). Seldom these days is the color of an office seeker’s skin, his racial or religious affiliation, or a disability (as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adult polio), even religious dedication like Mormonism or Catholicism developed in an issue discussed on every street corner. By no means have all candidates graduated from college; they have been born in some other state—even country except for that presidential office.
So, in America, another Election Day is coming very soon. Democracy, in a Republic, is about to dominate for a time. We all hope good people are on those ballots, that voters are indeed ready with the kind of information that will lead to good choices, and that no incidents will mar this most important of events in our venerable Nation. When we take time to think about the matter, we do hope that others on this troubled planet will learn the good things from the American experiment in self government, and that here at home Election Day will always symbolize the inexorable decline of tyranny and the exaltation of our famous observation: ONE MAN, ONE VOTE—AN EXPRESSION ABOUT READY TO BE CONVERTED IN SOME ENLIGHTENED PLACES TO “ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE.”