Editorial: The 2004 Vote: Making it Work

Written by Cafe Campesino on Oct 1, 2004 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |
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Though it’s easy to complain about the electoral process here in the United States, we actually have it good. We live in a country where we have the opportunity to choose our leaders. But given our busy lives, over-saturation with information and spin, and the plethora of differing points of view and convictions, it’s easy to get distracted from the task at hand…to make our elections work well and effect change for the better.

In 2002, President Jimmy Carter traveled to East Timor to observe and support the country’s first presidential elections, which would culminate in the birth of this century’s first new nation — the Republic of East Timor. Home to Café Campesino’s Fair Trade coffee partner Cooperativa Café Timor, East Timor showed the world what citizens and their representatives can accomplish in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

In its analysis “The East Timor Political and Election Observation Project” the Carter Center identified several areas that it believed were central to the new country’s ability to pull off credible, effective elections; they were: the security situation; the behavior and relationship between parties and candidates; citizens’ knowledge of the electoral process; the role of domestic observers and political party agents in each election; and women’s political participation in the transition.

As November 2nd fast approaches, I thought it might be helpful (and hopefully inspiring) to break-down our election process into the components identified by the Carter Center vis-à-vis the elections in East Timor to see how we are doing. After all, any monumental task is always better managed and more likely successful when it is dissected and its building blocks tackled individually.

Security – Despite what the pundits and media are saying about national security and the potential threat to our safety in the upcoming elections, we are, relatively speaking, in great shape. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that nobody in this country need fear traveling to their polling station to place his or her vote.

The behavior and relationship between parties and candidates – Well, perhaps this is an area in which we aren’t so evolved. When it comes to the parties’ and candidate’s behavior and their relationship to each other as well as the public, it seems that there is much work to do in the United States. Campaign reform has never been more sorely lacking and further, the party machines seem to have forgotten that the single most important reason for their existence is not to win – it is to work with others to make our country a better place for all citizens. I’m not saying that winning isn’t important, it is if the parties are to have their voice in policy, but, the extreme polarization of the executive and legislative and even the judicial branches at times, is short-circuiting the process. Differences in opinion need to be harnessed rather than manipulated in order to come together in the best interest of the common good rather than serve as a reason to divide and pit one against another.

Citizen’s knowledge of the electoral process – Ouch! With perhaps the best access to information in the world, it is astounding that we are so uneducated about our system and how it works. In defense of voters though, I needed weeks to prepare for the last elections when I lived in Florida — the length of the ballot, the number of candidates and issues and the seemingly bottomless depth to the ramifications of each vote I cast were nothing short of daunting. On the other hand, how lucky I was to have so many choices and a forum in which to express my opinion. But there is work to be done on our own education — parents, teachers and other role models (not to mention politicians) need to proactively communicate to our fellow citizens the basics — how the system works and why voting is a responsibility to be taken seriously — in a non-partisan manner. The mass media needs to perform more in-depth analyses of our election mechanics and report on our performance as the Carter Center does all around the world. Telling people to get out and vote isn’t enough, especially in light of the discouraging behavior and relationship between parties and candidates in the US. Issue-driven voting alone is also a problem — voting within the context of making the US and the world more just, healthy and peaceful is paramount.

One suggestion I have heard, which would give voters a little extra time and motivation to take the vote seriously, would be to turn election day into a national holiday as do so many other countries around the world. For those who say we can’t spare another holiday, just swap it out with Columbus Day, a misinformed celebration of a man who was the very antithesis of what our election system stands for.

The role of domestic observers and political agents in each election — how about a recognized, external national ombudsman for each of our national elections or even better, giving due attention to the many that already exist. Observers and respect for their role in, yes, monitoring our elections, would be a major advance in our system, especially given the very nature of “political agents” – which is exactly what they are and what they do…it’s their job. If observers can help East Timor pull off successful elections, surely they can help us do the same.

Women’s political participation in the transition — This is an area in which I believe we have a unique opportunity. Women have made such huge strides in this country over the past century, serving as an inspiration to the disenfranchised around the world. Our biggest challenge now is to vote women into the top, executive echelons of our government. The time for a woman President or Vice President came long ago…let’s shake it up and make it happen.

Though this is a very brief take on this year’s election, it is a fact that we are truly fortunate to have country in which voting is safe and a consistent component of our national life. We are well-equipped to make our electoral system succeed, with so many great tools like information, free media, the participation and leadership of women and the presence of observers willing to make our system work more effectively. Putting all of these resources to use is what I perceive to be the greatest challenge at hand. Our preoccupation with winning, being right, making others wrong and vilifying those with whom we disagree has become an all consuming distraction.

If the good people of East Timor can make it work, certainly we can too. So, instead of detracting from the process by dwelling on its shortcomings and defects, we should count our blessings and make the most of them. East Timor’s successful elections — which literally started from scratch — should inspire us to get out and vote and do what is necessary to make the system work. Every vote counts…imagine what our lives would be like if they didn’t.

Tripp Pomeroy joined Café Campesino as our general manager and a partner this past summer…though we’re sure he never imagined that he’d have the opportunity to “vent his spleen” once a month thanks to Fair Grounds!

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