Fear in America

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington DC

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song*. Just about everyone involved in the US national election speaks with a sense of foreboding.

Fear stalks America.

See it in the eyes of people in line where early voting is underway.

Read it in the Trump family e-mails, often three or four a day, each more anxious and shrill demanding donations.

Hear it in the media where Democrats speak cautiously, while increasingly Republicans—including Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien—are pessimistic explaining President Donald Trump’s gap to Joe Biden in pre-election polling.

Listen to Talk radio, almost universally conservative and pro-Trump, scream about socialists and communists plotting the takeover of the American way of life.

What you can’t see are thousands of false advertisements and fake accounts on Facebook killed as election day nears.

Lawyers on both sides prepare to do battle if election results are close. Any fight will start in various state courts, then federal courts, and perhaps get to the Supreme Court. You can appreciate the haste Republicans felt to name a ninth Justice to fill the empty seat. For these lawyers the "13th month" comes early this year.

If this were rush hour on the highway all the traffic robots would be blinking yellow and refusing to go green. Trump’s 2016 win was a surprise for everyone, including his strongest supporters. A loss in 2020 will be traumatic for Americans who like his policies and personality. The opposition knows winning means tackling the social, economic and political problems they inherit. The spectre of civil unrest is often obliquely suggested by the President should he lose.

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed an America led by a government unprepared to admit the medical problem, unable to act cohesively and promptly and incapable of recognising the impending economic catastrophe. The 7,000,000 infectious cases and nearly 220,000 deaths are forensic evidence that the Trump Administration pretended one thing while ignoring reality. Trump admitted this months later in a recorded interview claiming he didn’t want to alarm people.

Well, just about everyone is alarmed now on all sides of the political equation.

The obvious imperfections in the American electoral system have been obvious for a long time but really never were fixed. Whoever is in power thinks the existing rules worked to their benefit, so change has been incremental at best.

India has 1.3 billion people, with more than 900 million eligible to vote. The Indian Election Commission conducts elections and in 2019 managed a five-week phased election with an estimated turnout of 67% of voters.

What complicates American politics is the absence of a national election commission. The existing Federal Election Commission deals only with campaign financing, but toothless because it has a board made up of an equal number of political partisans. The USA has stuck with a 17th century approach that leaves things to the 50 states. We may have sent men to the moon and brought them back alive, but voting is hampered by a 17th century approach including holding elections on a Tuesday in November based on when the 18th century need to keep men in the field until the harvest was done.

State and local governments mean 50 different sets of rules and regulations that are not free from politics or partisan fighting. In many states the politically elected secretary of state oversee elections, with local voting overseen by a person selected by the political party in control of the jurisdiction.

For example, in the US state of Georgia last year, Secretary of State Brian Kemp ran for governor but did not relinquish his state post before the election. He was widely criticised on grounds of fairness. He won by 55,000 votes out of nearly 4,000,000 votes or .014 percent of votes cast. Coincidence or calculated conspiracy?

Local government determines how many and where the polling places are placed. It is not a mystery why the ratio of voters to polling places varies tremendously based on which political party is in control. The growing use of mail in ballots makes it easier for people to vote against a political party, which explains why Republican efforts to cripple the US postal system were put in motion. After opposition, the Trump team started sending out emails encouraging mail-in balloting. Hypocritical or Practical?

There are many differences between three of the planet’s great democracies, but the most startling is that America pins its elections on 200-year-old thinking and has never made election day itself a holiday. In Australia, voting is a legal requirement conducted over a holiday weekend with, obviously 100% participation. India’s participation is nearly 70%, while America barely exceeds 50% in most national elections. Factors range from disinterest to politically imposed impediments designed to keep people from voting. When the US Constitution was written, it gave voting rights to men of property, forgetting women, working men and slaves. Women finally got to vote in America in 1920. If the arc of history bends toward justice it bends slowly.

Extensive use of paper ballots mailed-in means it will take several days after the November 3 election day, to confirm who won the White House and the Congress, unless there is a landslide in either direction.  Lawyers are going to challenge voting totals where it appears close, which could add days or weeks to the drama. Voter turnout as a percentage of eligible voters -– and where it is located-- will make a difference in this partisan fractured nation.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3,000,000 with a turnout of 54%. But he won in the Electoral College, a contrivance from 1796 when state legislatures choose the winner and were not obligated by popular votes. Today most states, but not all, by custom or law reflect the popular vote. We asked Jim Jaffe, a longtime senior staffer in the House of Representatives and an expert on American politics, what early voting suggests. 

“Turnout at the moment seems extraordinarily high, but whether this is a net increase or merely a shift toward early voting isn't clear. If it is a net increase, that's advantageous to Biden. It also works to his favour insofar as those voting for him can't be turned around by any extraordinary Trump act.  The Trump people allege there are massive numbers of GOP voters who will only vote in person on election day, although that seems a tad improbable to me.  If so, they could be deterred by bad weather, long lines or other impediments.  So basically it is better to have people voting for you now than hoping people will vote for you later.”

Allegations that there are more voters registered than there are eligible people in many voting districts reflect the inability of most local governments to follow the rules in the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Passed in 1993, it requires states to remove people who have died, moved, or are otherwise ineligible to vote from the voter rolls. It is not fraud but residence mobility in the USA that causes this. It is not unusual to discover that moving 30 kilometres puts you in a different voting jurisdiction requiring complete re-registration.

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How might Indians-- and for that matter people around the world--view the outcome of the 2020 American election?  Will it be good or bad for the world, for my country, or for me personally in some way?

Or, perhaps what happens in America is irrelevant to most people’s daily lives.

* Kingston Trio, song, It Takes a Worried Man, 1959