Your every voter, as surely as your chief magistrate, exercises a public trust.
Grover Cleveland, Inaugural Address
Now that the nominating conventions have essentially concluded (except for a speech by Mr. Bush that we all eagerly await) we can start focusing on November 2, the day when a new president of the United States is elected. That is a momentous day and one to which we all look forward. Given the events of 2000, nothing is of greater concern to the citizenry than that this election be unblemished by the sorts of irregularities that caused the president in the last election to be selected by 9 people in black robes. To see how a true democracy runs elections and get ideas on how to run ours in 2004, we turn to Afghanistan, a country we recently helped blow up and are now helping rebuild (insofar as there is any money left over after taking into account the cost of conquering Iraq.) Its presidential election is scheduled for October 9, 2004 and it looks as though it is going to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
On August 17, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council that more than 9.9 million Afghans had registered to vote, a fact that both the Afghan government and the United States hailed as a demonstration of democracy in action in a country where only a short time before there had been real question as to whether or not a successful election could be held. When the election date was first announced there was concern that the Taliban would intimidate would-be voters and that conservatives would discourage women from registering to vote. Although only 42% of eligible women have registered, the high registration numbers among men demonstrate that the Taliban was unable to prevent male citizens from registering. The enthusiasm over the success of the Afghan experiment in democracy was not dampened when it was pointed out that the 9.9 million registered voters came out of a voting population estimated to contain 9.5 million people.
In Afghanistan a person wanting to vote obtains a registration card that enables the card holder to vote. Some people have obtained more than one card. One man obtained 10 cards that he proudly displayed to his friend, an office manager in Kabul. A student living away from home registered in the town he was attending school and then received a card from his parents that they had obtained in their hometown.
Confronted with registered voters outnumbering the eligible voters in the country, U.N. officials in Kabul raised their estimate of eligible voters to 10.5 million hoping to eliminate the anomaly. U.N. officials explained it by saying that since things are in a bit of a turmoil in Afghanistan the census number of eligible voters could be off by as much as a million. Whether it is off or not seems academic since as of August 23 registration totaled 10.35 million and the number of registered voters continued to rise. At the end of August British Broadcasting Corporation reported that in the Panjshir Valley, the number of registration cards that have been issued is two and a half times the estimated number of eligible voters thus suggesting that in that valley, at least, the problem may lie in something other than poor census figures. On the bright side, the over-enthusiastic response to voting put to rest early concerns that the election would be a failure.
Given the United States 2000 election, we do not have the right to criticize a country where participation in the electoral process promises to exceed 100 per cent. President Hamid Karzai, however, puts it all in perspective for us. Commenting upon the fact that an awful lot of people were getting multiple registration cards that would permit them to vote more than once, Mr. Karzai said: “We are just beginning an exercise; people are enthusiastic, they want to have cards. In fact, it doesn’t bother me if Afghans have two registration cards. If they’d like to vote twice, well welcome, this is an exercise in democracy, let them exercise it twice.”
According to one report, not all holders of more than one registration card intend to vote repeatedly. Some plan to sell surplus cards for as much as $100 to persons eager to vote who without the cards would be unable to do so. Thus voting becomes not simply an exercise in democracy but an opportunity for entrepreneurs to make money in the best American tradition.
It would surprise no one to learn that the Bush administration was instrumental in setting up the process in Afghanistan. It will surprise few if a slightly modified form of the Afghan model is used to help George Bush in his bid for reelection.