The American electoral system is a difficult thing to explain to Europeans with a long tradition of proportional representation. My first two-year stretch spent living in Berlin between 2003 and 2005 coincided with the endless presidential campaign that eventually concluded with George Bush’s re-election. A man in my building named Uli would often want an explanation as to what the difference between a caucus and primary was, or, more basically, why the campaigns went on for so long.
The day before that election the postman dropped off a package for us at Uli’s apartment because we weren’t home. When I stopped by that evening to pick it up, Ulrich invited me in for a glass of wine. I figured Uli wanted to talk politics I welcomed the chance to exercise it under the encouraging influence of the grape. Ulrich was raised in East Germany and he knows no English, since all he got was a dozen years of Russian required by the Soviet overseers.
Barely had the wine been poured than, Uli had gottconfronted me with the following question: “Was ist’s denn mit diesen Wahlmaennern?” which translates as, “What’s the deal with members of the Electoral College.”
I could have probably answered this question better in Swahili than German, or even English for that matter. Nonetheless, I took a big drink from my wine and gamely plunged in.
An hour-and-a-half later Ulrich remained less than fully illuminated on the subject. Aside from the thicket I was trying to hack through, there was the fact that we were well through a second bottle of south German grape juice.
By way of providing some relief for my own beleaguered mental forces, I asked Ulrich why he was so interested in the America political system. He said that the idea that someone could become leader of a democratic country with fewer votes than his opponents was a strange one to him, as was the fact that so few American’s actually voted in their own elections.
Ulrich went on to tell me about the single election he had voted on in East Germany. He had gone into a small room with a table and picked up the ballot paper on which were listed only candidates of the Socialist Party. Three observers, all employed by the secret police, were seated in the room, which had neither a booth with curtians nor a partition of any kind. The voter was supposed to fill out the ballot at a nearby table and then deposit the ballot in the box on the observer’s table. Like all elections, this one was won by the leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, with upwards of 95% of the vote.
In full view of the observers, Ulrich took the pencil and and cancelled out every name on the list. Then he folded the ballot and went to the table and looked squarely at each of the observers before shoving the paper into the ballot-box.
Some months later, in 1987, two years before the Fall of the Wall, Ulrich was on a plane from Berlin to Budapest. By coincidence, the daughter of the Austrian ambassador was sitting next to him, and she told him that the flight went on to Istanbul and that there was 50/50 chance that no one would come on the plane to check for tickets or passports.
Uli stayed on the plane and no one came on to check his papers. He got off in Istanbul, where he stayed in detention for two weeks unders suspicion of being a spy. After his release he made his way to West Germany.
When Ulrich went to look up his secret police file some years after the Fall of East Germany, he found a pro forma account of his defiant non-vote.
It was getting late and time for me to go back upstairs, so I thanked Ulrich for the wine, but most of all for telling me his story. I also apologized for getting him to tell it, since I imagined he had to tell it quite often.
He shrugged and said that he hadn’t told the story in a decade.