There’s lots of talk about the importance of getting out the vote. Yet there seems to be little discussion of existing models that could make that happen. Many countries have almost complete voter turnout at elections. Bolivia is one such country. I’m a permanent resident of Bolivia and have seen many elections.
First of all, Election Day in Bolivia is a national holiday. And Election Day is not on a Tuesday, it’s on a Sunday. Everything is closed up. The only thing to do is to go vote, and in Bolivia they make a party out of it. I’m talking take the kids and the dog and a picnic and a blanket and lay down in the sun on the grassy slope outside of the local elementary school that you walked to because that’s where the polling booths are set up in your neighborhood.
Kids fly kites. Dogs romp. Families, neighbors, and friends hang out and visit leisurely on this festive occasion, as the adults one by one drift in and out of the polling booths, proudly doing their civic duty. Local folks with push carts arrive outside the polling place early on Election Day to set up sidewalk eateries, cooking vats of soup or other yummy food over propane flames, so voters and their families can sit on wooden benches at portable tables, slurping delicious soup under shade structures made at home using rebar and plastic tarps. It’s a community gathering.
There is no traffic on the streets. The sky is always clear and clean. For another aspect of the holiday is that it is a pedestrian day. Only emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads. No smog. In Portland, Oregon, I’m told that Bolivia’s pedestrian days inspired the yearly Sunday Parkways events where an eight-mile loop of roads is closed to cars for most of the day, and open only to people walking or rolling on people-powered wheels from park to park, where there is entertainment and vendors.
How else does Bolivia encourage almost complete voter turnout? Well, in Bolivia (as in Belgium and many other countries), voting is required by law. Kind of like how in the U.S. every adult citizen must do Jury Duty from time to time. In Bolivia, if you don’t vote you can’t renew your driver’s license or ID card (unless you jump through many complicated and expensive hoops of red tape). Carrot and stick. And the carrot of election-day festivities I’ve attended in Bolivia are way more fun than any Jury Duty I’ve done here in the States.
We already are starting to copy Bolivia’s pedestrian days by having Sunday Parkways in Portland, Oregon. How can we copy Bolivia’s success at getting out the vote?
What I’ve been mainly hearing discussed in the States in regards to making voting as easy as possible, and ending voter suppression, is the push for getting rid of polling places and replacing them with mail-in ballots. But some are concerned that replacing polling stations with mail-in ballots would be a type of divide-and-conquer, making U.S. elections impossible to monitor.
As you know, the U.S. has a long history of sending observers to Third World countries to monitor their democratic elections. (Some of those observers were U.S. Marines holding machine guns standing by the ballot box to observe whether you voted for the U.S.-approved presidential candidate. But that history, of the U.S. in Nicaragua, is another story.) I’ll assume that most U.S. observers have been ethical people. But the point remains that up until last year, the U.S. observed other countries’ elections, but no one came to observe presidential elections here. That changed last November.
The Organization of American States (OAS), which includes 34 countries in the Americas, for the first time sent observers to monitor our presidential election. We were one of the three countries they monitored that year. The other two were Colombia and Haiti. The OAS team to the U.S. was headed by former President of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla. According to the OAS website, observers were deployed to polling places on Election Day in California, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin, as well as the District of Columbia.
But they could not observe polling stations in Florida at all, because Florida (along with 11 other states) prohibits international observation. Since the NAACP filed about 11,000 complaints with the Department of Justice about voter suppression in Florida (and other states) during the 2000 presidential election, it seems that Florida, in particular, needs to be observed.
If there were no polling places, but only mail-in ballots, the opportunities for voter suppression would multiply exponentially. I live in Oregon where we have mail-in ballots, and voter suppression happens. For example, an 18-year-old living with her father never “received” her ballot, although her father told me it came in the mail. Did he throw it away? How many other voters never “receive” their ballots, but to maintain some harmony in the home never speak up? What about residential facilities where the staff is charged with assisting the ill or memory-impaired with their mail-in ballots? Another example: Right-wing white fundamentalist Christian church leaders “offer” to fill out the ballots for their congregations. Individuals who choose not hand their ballot over are shunned from their religious community. White supremacist mail carriers can “lose” mail instead of delivering it. How can these myriad types of voter suppression be documented by international observers or the NAACP?
How can we make it as easy as possible to vote, while ensuring that international observers are able to thoroughly monitor U.S. elections?