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I am a self proclaimed coffee addict and Executive Director of a non profit missions agency working primarily in the Mexican cities of Oaxaca, Guadalajara, and Ensenada. I've been married for over 30 years to Chelle, and we have one grown son, Joseph, a graduate of Auburn University in Alabama.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Three Men Get into a Taxi... Does Fareed Zakaria have a point about our elections?

There's a joke that is very popular in Mexico and it goes something like this...

Three guys are in a taxi on their way to the airport and they begin to talk about elections and whose country is the best.  The first guy, and American, says that in his country, the greatest democracy in the world, after everyone votes, the people know the results after only a few hours, or days, at most.

The second guy, from China, boasts that that's nothing.  In China he says, with a billion people, they have gigantic computers that count the votes and they no the winner the minute the polls close, which is clearly better than America.

Scoffing at this, the third guy, from Mexico chimes in... That's nothing he says, puffing out his chest with pride... in my country millions of people vote in every election and you know what?  We know the results a month ahead of time!

With this in the back of my mind, I was surprised Sunday morning to hear Fareed Zakaria on his GPS Show reference Mexico as a place where the United States can look for guidance in how to run an election.

Here's what he said...

Imagine a country on Election Day where you know the results the instant the polls close. The votes are counted electronically, every district and state has the same rules and the same organized voting procedure. It is managed by a nonpartisan independent party.

Sounds like the greatest democracy in the world, right? Try Mexico or France, Germany, Brazil, certainly not the United States of America.

American has one of the world's most antique, politicized and dysfunctional procedures for its elections. A crazy, quilt patchwork of state and local laws with partisan officials making key decisions and ancient technology that often breaks down.

There are no national standards. American voters in more than a dozen states, for example, don't need identification, but even India, with a GDP just 12 percent that of ours, is implementing a national biometric database for 1.2 billion voters.

The nascent democracy in Iraq famously dipped voters' fingers in purple to ensure they didn't vote again. Why are we do behind the curve?

The conservative columnist, David Frum, recently wrote an excellent article for CNN.com and he tells a story about the 2000 presidential election. The City of St. Louis, Missouri, had outdated voting equipment so there were long delays in voting.

But St. Louis was heavily Democratic so Al Gore's campaign asked a judge to extend voting by three hours. The judge agreed, but then George W. Bush's campaign protested and the judge was overruled. Meanwhile, voting had already continued 45 minutes past the legal time.

Is that how elections should work in the world's greatest democracy? In most other countries, an independent national body would make the big decisions, there would be nonpartisan observers at the polls and, of course, there would be modern, functioning equipment.

Even Venezuela, which had elections last month, had electronic voting booths with biometric technology across the country.

We've been criticized around the world for this. I saw a scathing, 116-page report about our electoral process published by, of all places, Russia.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's translation of it, "The electoral system and electoral of the United States are contradictory, archaic, and moreover do not meet the democratic principles that the U.S. proclaims are fundamental to its foreign and domestic policy."

I hate to say it, but Moscow has a point. On the other hand, we do have one thing the Russians don't, actual free elections.

This election season, we've seen attempts to shorten the early voting period to further one party's chances of victory. Our ballots can be as long as a dozen pages.

In some places, they're paper ballots and, in some, they're electronic. And Election Day always falls on a Tuesday, a working day. Every four years, we see the chaos of American elections, but nothing changes.

This week, international election observers were banned from nine states. Some of these men and women were threatened with arrest. Maybe we should learning from election officials from abroad not trying to throw them into jail.

I will tell you that in Mexico's case, as the joke implies, there are some problems. But there are some strengths as well.  If you are going to vote, you need a national elector card provided by that non partisan group Zakaria referenced.  Your finger, after you vote, is inked like in many countries, to prevent double voting.  You will also see poll watchers at almost every precinct from the major political parties working to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote gets that opportunity.

Finally, Mexico votes on a Sunday, when most people do not work and can more easily get to the polls and not miss a day of work.  The winner is then announced that evening at 10:00pm.

Do they have it all figured out?  No they don't, and neither do any of those other countries listed above.  But maybe, just maybe, the United States can look across the global spectrum and come up with a system that is better for us, mixing the strengths of some of these places.

We've got to do something... because a system that is controlled by whichever party wins the various Secretary of State office elections across this country is ripe for partisan abuse.

Right now the world is laughing at us.  As we admonish the rest of the world to become more democratic like us, they are asking why. 

Why should they allow political parties to take control of their public airwaves for six months every two years, broadcast lie after lie, and then send people to stand in sometimes, five hours lines, for the right to cast a vote that may take days, or weeks to count, if it is even counted at all?  

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Comments on "Three Men Get into a Taxi... Does Fareed Zakaria have a point about our elections?"


Blogger BB-Idaho said ... (3:19 PM) : 

Considering how every other facet of life in the 21st century is wired, cross-linked and wi-fied, our voting process is a bit of a mess. The most damning indictment is "international election observers were banned from nine states." We think we are 'exceptional' and it would seem
would be proud to host international observers...otherwise
it looks like we have something to hide.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (1:16 PM) : 

BB, sometimes our need to be exceptional get in the way of potentially good solutions. It keeps us from being able to consider all options. Honestly, doesn't the fact that Mexico uses a federally issued voter ID card all but rule it out for many in the US?


Blogger dmarks said ... (8:46 AM) : 

Yeah, those who favor voter fraud and fight, often successfully, to protect it in the US courts would hate such a card.


Blogger dmarks said ... (9:09 AM) : 

Also, in regards to this:

"Why should they allow political parties to take control of their public airwaves for six months every two years, broadcast lie after lie"

It never happens. There is no "control" taken. Campaign ads, an expression of the basic human rights protected in the Constitution, take up at most even a small percentage of airtime.

And yes, the airwaves belong to the public. Not to the rulers, and as such should be unfettered.


Blogger Dave Miller said ... (7:06 AM) : 

Dmarks, you frequently comment with snark that is only aimed in one direction... and as I've I said elsewhere on this blog, that is the problem.

People are interested in finding snark, rather than solutions. You are like the folks who endlessly requote Obama and his obvious gaffe regarding 58 states as fact.

Oh, I'm sorry, you are not like them, you are one of them.

As for the airwaves, does your citing of the airwaves as public and the need to be unfettered mean that the Feds cannot put any controls on them?


Blogger dmarks said ... (5:32 AM) : 

I typically bring up Obama's 58 states thing to point out that yes he makes mistakes too, especially when Palin's gaffes were discussed (and oddly enough, sometimes it was in discussions of gaffes Palin never even made but people believe he did, like the Russia-from-my-house one).

As for your airwaves question, I defer to a great statesman, thinker, politician, and yes, liberal Democrat:

"Precisely because radio and TV have become our principal sources of news and information, we should accord broadcasters the utmost freedom in order to insure a truly free press."

Mario Cuomo, from the New York Times, in 1993.

And yes, I think that means minimal controls, especially as to not influence content. Cuomo said this when opposing a former scheme called the "Fairness Doctrine" under which the First Amendment was nullified, and the airwaves could only be used for content begrudged by the government.


Blogger Sampson Greenovich said ... (8:39 AM) : 

I think the idea of an outdated complex voting system is actually rather comforting, this way its more difficult to "fudge" votes to spin the election in another direction.
taxi mission


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