A Fourth of July Challenge

Independently seeking votes

Constituents vote for deputies to local people’s congress in Ganjingzi district, Dalian, Liaoning Province in 2007. Photo: CFP

On this, the eve of annual celebration of our nationhood, I have been thinking about the liberty that we honor with fireworks.  We are celebrating, at least in theory, a 235-year old independent and democratic country – one governed by the people for the people.  Our system of government has a some unique qualities that not shared every democracy shares.  Everyone gets to vote, anyone can run for office and whoever wins gets to take office.  The peaceful transfer of power is a very important element in our long-term relative stabilty.   In our system, candidates don’t always say nice things about their opponents, but when the voting is over a winner is declared and on the appointed day that person takes the oath of office.  It is not always a clean and perfect process, in the 1960s, for example,  the campaigns and the conventions became very contentious and even violent; in our 200 year history, armed forces have been used to restore order and have on occasion killed demonstrators – but the army has never imposed a candidate.  There have been disputed elections, recounts and even elections that were decided by the courts and there have been very, very angry losers; but we have not had an election results over turned by the army.

A peaceful transfer of power is one very important measure of the nature of democracy.  Thailand is a democracy, but one that has had a change of power (2005) brought on by the armed forces; this weekend’s election overruled that take over.  It will take time before anyone knows if there will be a peaceful exchange of power or whether the situation will deteriorate into violence with the army surfacing as the final arbiter of power.  At the moment, a comparable situation exists in Egypt; there has not yet been an election, but there has been a change in power.  The people demanded the change, but in the end, it was the army that imposed the change and maintains control of the government; the army will dictate the subsequent course of politics in Egypt.  There is suppose to be an election in September – it remains to be seen if it will be an open election with all facets of Egypt political opinion represented.  If the ruling party should lose a population election would it allow a change of power to take place?  That certainly is an important question, but before that election takes place, there is another more important question to answer – who is going to be on the ballot.

The current government may arrange the election in such a way that only certain candidates and parties are on the ballot, or it may allow all of the political interests in Egypt to put forth candidates.  That is always the tricky question – not who gets to vote – but who gets on the ballot.  In the course of our history, determining who could vote was the most important question, and one which determined whether we were truly a representative democracy or not.  Two hundred, or one hundred or even 50 years ago we were still trying to get to a fully democratic state where every citizen was entitled and allowed to vote; and we have not always been the most advanced country – Communist Russia and its fellow communist countries wanted everyone to vote, if for no other reason that to show the world the people supported communism.

Outside of the United States and Europe, a more important issue has been determining who was on the ballot.  The communist country traditionally carefully control candidacy – but then encourage everyone to vote. China is in the process of selecting candidates for a national election, the process takes six months and is, by our standards convoluted.  The process takes place twice a decade – I don’t understand it, but apparently there is a way for independent candidates to represent their district in local councils or in the people’s congresses – some 2 million delegates will be elected. Between the United States, Great Britain, Egypt, Thailand and China there is not much comparison or commonality – except the basics – popular elections are held to elect representative councils.

The real crux of democracy is not in an election or even in suffrage (most countries now have something close to universal suffrage), but in the way parties and candidates qualify for the ballot.  We have very few legal restrictions in our system; just as we have reached (or nearly reached) universal suffrage, we have reached a state of universal qualification.  But that is only the legal restrictions, there is another category of restricts that has become more important in determining qualification of the ballot – money.  Running for office has become far too expensive for an amateur candidate to have a chance to qualifying for the ballot – even if such a person manages to get his or her name or  issue on the ballot, there is little chance anyone will vote for him or her or their issue.

235 years into our experiment, if there is a serious internal threat to our system, it lies in the cost of gaining public office.  Presidencies are approaching a billion dollars, a governorship in the hundreds of millions and even to be a mayor might cost upwards of a million dollars.  It is a problem for which I see no solution and one that will only get worse – our only recourse is to use our vote thoughtfully and judiciously.  Happy Fourth of July!



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