Foreign observers watch U.S. democracy at work

November 6, 2012

And on your right you’ll notice the American voter (homo electus) in his natural habitat, a school gymnasium.

Please do not approach the voter. He should not be startled while he blackens a few circles to make the wheels of democracy go ’round and ’round.

And yet there are loud colorful signs and boisterous campaign staffers just beyond the border of the no-electioneering zone at West Elementary School in 16th Street Heights on Tuesday morning. And doughnuts.

“Coffee and water outside?” says Ahmed Issack Hassan, the chairman of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. “We’d call it bribing, giving somebody water. . . . But I find there’s a lot of trust in the people and systems here.”

Hassan, a Nairobi lawyer who’s charged with preparing his country for the first presidential election (in March) under its young constitution, glances out the window of a limousine bus as it crosses over the Potomac River. As U.S. voters scamper to their polling places to plot the nation on its next four-year course, 15 buses carrying 400 election administrators from 60 countries toured the D.C. area on an electoral safari — to watch the world’s most self-aggrandizing democracy practice its own beautiful, messed-up version of it.

As the bus breaches commonwealth territory, the president and CEO of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems stands up and sweeps his arm.

“Welcome to Virginia everybody!” says William R. Sweeney Jr. “A completely different jurisdiction governed by completely different election rules.”

The busload of foreign election administrators murmurs with clinical fascination. In a matter of moments, they have crossed from a district to a state, from the United States’ most unshakable (and tiniest) Democratic electoral block to one of its swingiest, from a jurisdiction that doesn’t matter in the presidential election to one that may decide it.

Ah, the electoral college. A jigsaw puzzle of points that can crown a candidate who doesn’t receive a majority vote.

“I think it’s a complete distortion of democracy,” Hassan says of the U.S. system, as the bus winds its way through fall foliage. “If someone wins the popular vote, that’s the essence of democracy. It’s like you are qualifying the democracy here, and there’s a lot of power in the electoral college. Looking from the outside, it’s very odd.”

Looking from the outside, through the wide eyes of foreign officials, Election Day in the United States is odd. It’s also fabulous. But before we continue with the safari, let’s rewind to Tuesday morning, when the participants in IFES’s 2012 U.S. Election Program were finishing breakfast and participating in a panel discussion at the National Press Club.

“In most of our countries we vote on a non-working day, a holiday,” said the chairman of elections in Cameroon into a microphone. “For those who have to work, isn’t it unfair to have to choose between voting and earning a living?”

“When the Constitution was written, we were an agrarian society,” says Peter Kelly, chairman of the board of IFES, from a dais. “On Monday people worked in the fields and on Wednesday they brought produce to market, so Tuesday was an in-between day. But I agree with you. It should be a holiday.”

Americans! Still voting as if we’re all farmers.

“There are seven ways to vote in seven different municipalities within 50 miles of D.C.,” Sweeney says, in conclusion, from the dais. “All of you will tell me tonight that ‘You Americans are crazy.’ And I will agree with you.”

The buses depart for the United States of Crazy just before 10 a.m.

Bus No. 7’s first stop is West Elementary, with its corrupt perimeter of water, coffee, doughnuts and campaign signs and leafletting.

“No one should intervene the day of the election,” says William Smirnov of the Institute of State and Law at Moscow’s Russian Academy of Sciences. “It could be punishable by even criminal law.”

“In Mexico, no, no,” says Jose Alejandro Luna Ramos, chairman of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal of Justice, waving at the perimeter. “None is possible. No es posible.”

In Kenya, Ahmed Hassan says, all candidates must freeze their campaigns 24 hours before polls open. “I saw Romney is campaigning today,” he says. “That would not happen in Kenya.”

(Russia, Mexico and Kenya, it should be noted, are all in the infamous bottom half of Transparency International’sCorruption Percentage Index of 182 countries; the United States is in the less-corrupt top quartile; this irony is what makes this electoral safari so much fun.)

“We don’t want to approach the voters themselves,” says Thad Hall, bus No. 7’s leader and an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, as he corrals the officials inside the school gym.

And here are the American voters of D.C. Precinct 54: Mostly African-American, carrying massive coffee cups, toting baby carriers, wearing sunglasses indoors, in hoodies or jeans or spandex running gear or three-piece suits with gold silk pocket squares, waiting in line to check in with clerks.

The voters regard the officials.

The officials regard the voters.

Then bus 7 trundles over the Potomac, into Virginia, arriving around 11:30 a.m. at Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, where the polling place of 2,778 swing-state voters is captained by schoolteacher Mary Lou Wentzel, who has been a poll worker for 32 years.

And here are the American voters of Fairfax County: Walking with canes, wearing head scarves or denim jackets, speaking Spanish or Somali, with pleated pants hitched high and distressed jeans riding low.

Underneath a basketball hoop in the gym, Wentzel — wearing a white turtleneck, clipboard under her arm — introduces the group to white-haired poll clerk Muhammad Omar, who moved from Afghanistan to the United States in 1983. Fazal Ahmad Manawi, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, immediately engages him in conversation in Dari.

“A fellow Afghan who is now here, and a citizen, and at his age volunteering, this reflects the greatness of America,” Manawi says after moving along to watch a Virginia citizen who has given permission for the group to watch him vote.

“Okay, that’s it,” says the Virginian voter after tapping the screen a few times.

On the way out, the group meets Republican Kathleen McDermott and Democrat Walt Sanders, Annandale residents who are poll-watchers for their respective parties. The visiting officials inquire about transparency, about trusting the machinery and the polling officials, about operating a polling place under the watch of turtle-necked schoolteachers instead of the police or military.

“We’re Americans,” Wentzel says. “We’ll always accept the results.”

“We always do,” McDermott says.

“One party is usually sadder,” Wentzel admits.

“But I’m a Democrat, and she’s a Republican,” Sanders says, gesturing to McDermott, “and we get along just fine.”

The visiting officials want their photos taken with this crazy breed of citizen.

“Thank you for coming!” says McDermott with great enthusiasm as the group exits the habitat — er, polling place.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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