Tag Archives: votes

American Democracy Is Not As Fragile As You Think

The past year has been less of a roller coaster ride than a grey fugue the country stumbled through, like a blind man negotiating a highway in the wrong direction. 

At the end of the year, after battling a plague and an economic meltdown, terrible uncertainty and a horrific body count, came the event billed as seismic and life altering – the Presidential election. 

The American public was entrusted with the task of choosing their next leader, someone who would lead the way out of the fugue and escort the blinded country safely across that killer highway to the right side. The build up to the election of 2020 felt cataclysmic: millions of us voted, according to our convictions, which were the strongest they’ve ever been. 

2020 has been the year, when voting felt like you were a contestant in a gameshow, where you had to choose between two doors – behind the right door was the way out to safety and bliss. Make the wrong choice and a trapdoor opens and deposits you into a dark, unending hell. No matter who you supported, the wrong door, according to your beliefs, was a hell trap.

Because of how important I felt this election year was, I volunteered to be an election officer.

After all the votes were counted and the theatrics over election fraud began, it occurred to me that my experience in my official capacity as an election officer gave me a special, grassroots insight into the process.

The process was as clean and flawless as a new born baby. 

It began with my online application. I was then required to fill in an application in person at our local government center building. My ID was checked multiple times and cross checked with what I filled into different forms. I was assigned a precinct close to my home, in my daughter’s old elementary school, and told to report at 5:00 am on election day. I was also required to watch a two-hour training video, since in-person training in the middle of COVID-19 was out of the question.

On Nov 3, at 5:00 am, before the birds began to chirp, we gathered in what was the school gym. Our chief was already there, and the ballot machines stood bulkily in a corner. They required a special procedure to be opened and two of us were assigned to open and activate them. A poll watcher was present and there were at least seven other election officers milling around, prepping the tables and activating the poll pads. 

To try to stuff those machines with fraudulent ballots would be the equivalent of performing a naked tap dance in a kindergarten classroom and hope no one would notice. 

The polls opened at 6:00 am and voting public began to line up at 5:30, spilling out the door into the chill of the morning. There was a festive spirit in the air – people were eager to cast their ballot and make their tiny mark on history.

What really sold me on the experience of being an election officer was how democratic it was. 

There was no bureaucratic hierarchy with the chief barking out orders. We were volunteers -many of the officers were my neighbors. We were ordinary citizens entrusted with making sure the voting process was fair and accurate. 

The momentous, historic nature of the task was not lost on us. We joked about how we would tell our grandkids we worked the polls in the divisive, fateful, 2020 election. All of us took turns at sanitizing the tables after people voted, monitoring the lines, handing out ballots, checking in voters and handling the machines.

Jyoti Minocha with poll workers at her precinct.

When I was checking in voters I realized many were neighbors I had never met. I also gleaned after chatting with my fellow election officers, that some had political leanings which were the antithesis of mine. 

However, whatever our political bent, we were there to work at making our democracy a success – our small precinct was a study in how  people with  political points of view which are about as compatible as a spark in an ammunition dump, are capable of cooperation, in a sane and sensible fashion to further a common good – the right to a free and fair election. 

After months of watching the meltdowns, vitriol and extremism on television, it was a relief to realize that the average American is someone like me, a regular person just trying to do what is right and leave a better legacy for our children.  

At the end of the day after the polls closed, we tallied the ballots with the machine count, and sealed them in boxes which would be sent to the county clerk. There was no scope for tampering: all the officers were present and had to sign off on the final count before the boxes were sealed. 

It was as transparent a process as could possibly be.

I know for sure I’m going to volunteer for every election, going forward. Understanding how the system worked made me realize how important volunteers, the ordinary, everyday people, with no axe to grind and no political connections, are essential to ensuring that this grassroots foundation of democracy is preserved.

 I discovered that America’s democracy is much less fragile than it appears to be. 


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Fake News, Aziz Ansari & The Vote

In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, a tweet featuring popular Indian American actor Aziz Ansari urged voters to cast their vote from home. The photoshopped image showed Ansari, star of Master of None and Parks & Recreation, holding a sign that said “Save Time. Avoid the Line. Vote from Home.”

It’s illegal to vote from home or online in an US election, but that of course, did not deter Russian hackers behind the ad who used Twitter and Facebook to spread misinformation about the 2016 election.

Did some people tweet in their vote? Twitter did not say. Not even when a Congressional committee eventually began an investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, as fake news surged unchecked on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook included.

Four years later we are in another contentious election cycle. And the fake news machinery rolls on, brazenly manipulating a divided electorate with tales that range from the silly to more serious.

In a post that went viral, President Trump recently retweeted a link entitled “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News”, from the news site Babylon Bee, that openly admits to running “Fake News you can trust” – the tagline on its Twitter page.  Sometime the truth isn’t obvious even when it stares you in the face!

Absurd news stories from the conservative Babylon Bee and its left-leaning counterpart The Onion, often get significant clicks and shares with their satirical takes on current events. But they sit outside the fringes of ‘countermedia’ outlets which produce stories that are much more insidious and dangerous to democracy.

What’s different with the current crop of fake news protagonists, is they’re not just distant, foreign ‘troll factories’ igniting discontent among voters in the US. A University of Colorado study of Facebook and Twitter users in America reports that people at ideological extremes in this country are likely to make misleading stories go mainstream via social media.

Fake news instigators are unleashing a wave of misleading ads and false news to sow unrest among voters.  But’s what’s more concerning is that bad actors are weaponizing social media, with much more dangerous consequences.

Axios reported that at least 11 Congressional nominees have expressed support for QAnon, a conspiracy theory cult which has propagated bizarre stories through its Redditt and other social media accounts, like the one about the coronavirus being created by the ‘deep state’, and the notorious ‘Pizzagate,’ which ended with an armed vigilante storming a neighborhood pizzeria.

This election season, purveyors of fake news are adopting devious tactics to spread misinformation and disinformation to interfere with the election, intimidate voters and suppress the vote.

Speakers at an October 16 Ethnic Media Services briefing shared their perspectives on the intent behind messaging that’s being fabricated to confuse and disenfranchise voters.

Cameron Hickey, Jacqueline Mason and Jacobo Licona

“It doesn’t have to be false to be a problem,’ said Cameron Hickey, Program Director of Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC). In fact, fear mongering in conspiracy theories is designed to make recipients scared, angry or self-righteous and provoke changes in behavior, like the aforementioned gunman in the ‘Pizzagate’ incident.

With regard to the upcoming election, said Hickey, the most ‘concerning’ thing is talk of an impending ‘civil war’ that is appearing in messaging from both sides of the political spectrum. Warnings to voters about being prepared for armed conflict in the event of election results that don’t result in their favor, are “seeding the ground for potential violence,” warned Hickey.

Information about mail-in and absentee ballots, or when and where and how people can vote are embedded in messaging  that may be (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading. A classic example of this said Hickey, is the one which says, “Republicans can vote on Tuesdays and Democrats vote on Wednesdays.”

Jacqueline Mason, senior investigative researcher at First Draft, shared a picture of Kamala Harris, the Democratic VP nominee, that went viral on social media. The photoshopped image showed Harris against images of black men she had allegedly imprisoned beyond their release dates, though upon closer inspection, the background appears to be composed of repeated images of the same six men.

What does this discordance say about our culture with its reliance on digital echo chambers and crumbling trust in mainstream media and government?

“We are no longer having conversations about the issues or the identities of the politicians running for office but exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that distort reality,” said Hickey.

Not only is it becoming harder to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t, in the false narratives being pedaled on social media, but it appears that civil discourse, along with a responsibility to the truth, is also slipping away from our collective grasp.


Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

 

The Meaning of Swaraj on Independence Day

Independence Day fireworks and parades aside, many young friends and family members express their despair and disappointment in the moral bankruptcy of those elected to lead the world’s democracies by asking me, “Why vote?”

I open with a Gandhian quote: “The very essence of democracy is that every person represents all the varied interests which compose the nation.”

And then I follow-up with a little history from Amartya Sen, and then a little “my-story,” and finally a clarification that without Gandhiji’s sense of swaraj, independence would be meaningless.

In his wonderful book The Argumentative Indian, Sen writes: “Democracy is intimately connected with public discussion and interactive reasoning.  Traditions of public discussion exist across the world, not just the West… The Greek and Roman heritage on public discussion is, of course, rightly celebrated, but the importance attached to public deliberation also has a remarkable history in India… In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to the early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress… ”

From Ashoka to Obama, from Akbar to Trump, we’ve had the opportunity to give voice to what matters. In 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy seemingly took away hope from many American voices.  When my parents brought my siblings and me to the United States a year later, I was too young to lose hope. Indeed, I looked to the moon landing and could see only possibility. More than three decades later, I lost my voice in the aftermath of 9/11. I felt that I couldn’t speak up in public about racial profiling or write letters to the editor about a shameful war. Although I resided in a country that constitutionally ensured its citizens the freedom of speech, I lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. So I became careful about what I said and what I wrote. Enough. It’s time to represent our “varied interests which compose the nation” by voting with our ballots, our pencils, our voices. That’s what happened in the United States in 2008, and the pendulum swung from McCain to Obama. And then again it happened in 2016, and the pendulum swung from Clinton to Trump. The 2020 elections will take place a mere 13 months after Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, and the outcome is far from certain. Will the pendulum swing further right, over to the left, or a stabilizing center?

So why vote? If one considers Gandhiji’s concept of swaraj in its fullness, one realizes that political swaraj means self-government in a sovereign state, and individual swaraj means self-mastery in a private space. Voting is a wonderfully expressive means of conflating the public and the private, of integrating political and individual swaraj.

In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Rajesh C. Oza recently published “Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas” which  is available on Amazon or at www.satyalogue.com.

Cover photo credit: A Creative Commons image by Eduardo Francisco Vazquez Murillo.