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.”