I have volunteered to help in two elections in my life: the 1997 municipal elections in Serbia and the U.S. 2000 elections. Both made me out be a liar to a lot of strangers who had faith in me and in democracy.
In 1997, Serbia and Bosnia were recovering from the aftermath of mass slaughters. I was one of a number of election monitors the U.S. State Department sent to make sure democracy rose from the ashes of the war-torn region. I was young, inexperienced and completely out of my element. But I’m American, so I was a living expression of democracy to other people.
I was assigned to monitor a precinct in the town of Pale, the stronghold of the Serbian military that slaughtered thousands of Muslim families. Previous elections had been marked by voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and other shady activities.
To ensure democracy this time around, the United Nations sent troops and the U.S. sent election monitors. The leading party represented the Serbian nationalist movement the very force that the U.S. feared would tamper with the elections to ensure Serbian political dominance.
I built relationships with the people of Pale during the weeks leading up to the elections. This was hard considering my country had just layered the landscape with bombs. But the people were understanding and could see my sincerity. My youth worked to my advantage, as I seemed less threatening. They invited me into their homes, I ate their food, and learned how to play European basketball.
The elections went down smoother then expected. Only the military had automobiles so the people, including grandmothers and grandfathers, walked miles to reach the precinct site—an old elementary school on top of a hill.
An unprecedented 90 percent of the townspeople turned out. Even Muslim families who were driven from their homes months before caravanned back to vote. The only group not voting, were the young—they were dead.
After the voting, I went to the hotel where the monitors were staying and found it crawling with United Nations security forces. They told me I could not leave the hotel for my own security, that the major winner—the leading Serbian nationalist part—was being disqualified for putting posters too close to the voting sites.
This violation allowed the United Nations to remove the party from the ballot, even though the citizens overwhelmingly voted for it. Consequently, we election monitors—who claimed we were there to ensure that people’s votes counted—would be viewed as con artists. Worse, we would be in considerable danger once the locals learned of the decision.
Luckily, United Nations officials decided that disqualifying the party could lead to more conflict, so they let the results stand. All 12 election monitors were still quickly evacuated just in case. I left Pale perplexed. I felt like a fraud, a pawn of politics that was anything but democratic.
Since then, I have consciously set aside my doubts about democracy, but election 2000 revived the feeling that I was lying to strangers again.
I put a lot of hours into election 2000. I was hesitant at first. The AFL-CIO had called on unions to actively get members out to vote for Gore and the Democratic ticket. I work for and believe in the union, but I was not sure how I felt about Gore and the Democrats.
An elder in the movement convinced me that our effort was more about getting working people involved in the democratic process than about making candidates win. I buried my reservations and spent days and nights getting union members, who were initially as reluctant as I was, to get involved in the elections.
I also went to the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices and registered new U.S. citizens as soon as they finished swearing in. Many were anxious to vote in their first U.S. election, and I assured them they were not too late to vote in the coming presidential contest.
As expected, the work of volunteers led to an exceptionally high turnout among minority voters and union members.
But now, with not only the presidency, but also the very electoral process in question, I am feeling like a fraud again, a used-car salesman who got away with selling a lemon.
As in Serbia, people trusted me and accepted my assurance that democracy was real, that their vote counted. Once again my age and youthful enthusiasm helped elicit trust from people who usually close their door to solicitors.
Just as in Serbia, I am now waiting with bated breath for the politicos, judges and state officials to decide the fate of the election—after the people have voted. Just as in Serbia, I am hoping that the decision goes the right way, so I don’t get blamed for the mess.
I know I probably won’t. People know not to shoot the messenger. But my experience shows that democracy is a risky thing to promise.
Raj Jayadev is the Silicon Valley/Digital Divide editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a monthly newspaper by and about Bay Area youth published by Pacific News Service.