Thursday, February 2, 2023
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Down to the Wire

As the US mid-term polls are underway, many Americans (mostly Republicans) are worried that the outcome might be determined by election fraud. This has been a non-stop grievance from former president Donald Trump despite lacking evidence to support his loss in 2020 to President Joe Biden. Perhaps the most important issue this year is what a very conservative US Supreme Court will mean for multiple issues

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Patrick McGrath paced the crowded meeting room, lecturing us nonstop for two hours. Slides on a giant screen came from the 64-page election handbook we had to read and understand. Many in the mostly middle-class audience were regulars, people who volunteered to man the 1,300 voting precincts every two years. This Allegheny County, Pennsylvania voting official asked for no questions until he was done. Some, like this journalist, were first-timers, hoping to see the inside of the election process after decades of writing about politics. To put us at ease, McGrath told 100 of us that “on election day, 98% of the voters will not have an issue. For the 2% who do, the answer is always a provisional ballot. Give them a provisional ballot. It will be qualified and counted at the Central Office.”

This reporter wanted to experience the election from the other side of the voting desk. This is entirely voluntary in most American jurisdictions, but here the pay is $175. Along with three others, I will manage a precinct in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rules regarding everything are spelled out in detail. It takes about 6,000 poll workers at 1,300 polling places in a County with a population of 13,00,000 people. Poll workers are not asked about their political beliefs, but we all swear an oath to uphold the laws and rules. Elections in the USA are run by 50 states through their local jurisdictions; India and most nations have a national election run by a national government organization.

After reading and understanding all the checks and protocols, fudging the numbers would be near impossible at the precinct level. The paper ballots are fed to a scanner, which is where the “vote casting” occurs. There are two parallel memory cards. Nothing is attached to the Internet. Ballots given out are carefully counted, and compared to the scanners count. Any “spoiled ballots” or a ballot “uncast” are also accounted for and everything is returned to the central office. McGrath makes it clear: “Nothing goes into a waste basket, leaving no opportunity for media images.” Voters are allowed to take a selfie picture of themselves voting, but nothing else. In America a voter’s finger is not inked, but you do get a sticker that says “I voted”.

The 2022 mid-term elections are underway, with many Americans (mostly Republicans) worried that the outcome might be determined by election fraud. This has been a non-stop grievance from former president Donald Trump despite lacking evidence to support his loss in 2020 to President Joe Biden. In fact, before the 2016 election, Trump complained about voting fraud. His campaign had begun as a marketing gambit for his real estate ventures, not expecting to win. But, surprise, he won. By complaining non-stop since losing in 2020, he preserves for his most loyal supporters a measure of hope for 2024. A companion effort is a non-stop effort to raise money for whatever he wants to do with it. Since he is not a candidate at this time, no election rules apply. It is comparable to being a busker.

Any election deniers sound like Kari Lake, a former local news host on an Arizona TV channel. She is running for governor. Asked by a CNN anchor if she could accept losing, Lake said: “I ’m going to win the election and I’m going to accept that result.” Asked again, “if you lose,” she robotically responded: “I’m going to win the election and I will accept that result.” Arizona is not as Republican as it was two decades ago. Biden won Arizona in 2020. A chaotic recount organized and paid for by Republicans concluded that Biden received more votes than he was credited with in the official count. Both political parties can assign poll watchers. This requires prior certification of the people who will observe and can complain if they see something they think, is amiss. In Pennsylvania the mail-in or absentee ballot counting starts one hour before the polls close.

Some results will be known by midnight on November 8, which will be 09:30 IST on November 9. Congressional control may change or it may not, but President Biden is in office until January 2025. A fuller picture of what America decided and what it means is not likely to be clear for several days, if at all. If recent history is a guide, the losers will shout about rigged elections and fraudulent voters, heading to court asking to have the ballots recounted.

Republicans have been running against the Biden administration, hoping to block Democrats’ ability to pass legislation. From a policy perspective, the Republicans are against most economic programmes, such as the social security retirement fund and medicare programmes which benefit 134 million Americans. Mostly their talking point has been inflation as an American issue, despite the fact that it is a global economic phenomenon. The roots are clear: the pandemic impact on supply and large corporations taking advantage to raise prices. The last time the US had wage and price controls was in 1971 when Richard Nixon, a Republican, was president.

Perhaps the most important issue this year is what a very conservative US Supreme Court will mean for multiple issues. Its recent decisions, especially the one removing national abortion rights, are a major influencer in moving people’s vote. As the final week unfolds, the horse-race characteristics of elections dominate the media. It isn’t that simple. Despite not being officially on any ballot, Donald Trump, the former president is on voters’ minds as the  de-facto leader of the Republican Party.

The control of Congress in the House and the Senate is likely to be a very close call, although some pundits think Republican bravado about how well they will do is just that—bravado—and not likely to materialize.   

The polls, no matter how much effort goes into making them a balanced reflection of the larger electorate, are easy to game. One Republican friend explained to me that he answers all phone calls in the hope of being polled because he tells them he is a Democrat and so unhappy he will vote for the Republicans this time. He made clear that this is an organized effort by Republicans to skew the polling to create an aura of invincibility.

An election this past week in Brazil defeated a Trump-style right-wing authoritarian who believed he would win a second term. Was the race as close as the one percentage point difference? The fact that most of the political leadership in Jair Bolsonaro’s party readily accepted his loss suggests to this reporter that whatever efforts there were to fudge the vote or suppress turnout, it did not work as planned.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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