There were problems in our most recent presidential election that prevented some people from voting: poll slowdowns, registration glitches, dirty tricks, and much more. (I don’t mean to be dismissive: there are nearly 29,000 incidents reported in the Election Incident Reporting System database.)
But what if, when our next election day rolls around, you and I were to face a realistic chance of being killed or gravely injured as punishment for voting? Would we vote?
It will be quite a while before the totals are in, but it appears that enough Iraqis voted in the election just ended to equal or better the nearly 60% of U.S. registered voters whose ballots were counted in the hotly contested 2004 election. They did this despite nearly a hundred people being maimed or killed in attacks the previous day, despite intense boycott pressure in some regions that greatly reduced their voting totals, despite the fact that the polls closed at 5 p.m. (they close at 8 p.m. in California elections), and despite the fact that all private transportation was off-limits on election day. While the Bush administration would like to spin this as a vindication of its deranged “preventive war” policy, it seems so clearly and beautifully to illustrate something quite different: human resilience and dignity even in the face of such sustained and bloody insult to Iraq’s population and body politic as the firestorm of countervailing violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion.
The stereotypical view of Iraq’s political culture has the country emerging from beneath’s Saddam’s boot heel as if newborn — lacking the slightest acquaintance with electoral politics. In fact, though, the country has a long history of electoral parties and institutions that was not erased by having sunk into the Baathist dictatorship. Many Americans regard our own electoral system with a jaundiced eye, all too aware of its inefficiencies and its susceptibility to corruption. But I venture to say after sustained battering from the Baathists followed by sustained battering from the Americans, Iraqis might reasonably be expected to look at the whole electoral enterprise with even more suspicion and far fewer illusions than Americans.
Nevertheless, it appears that at least as great a proportion of registered voters braved death to go to the polls in Iraq as were willing to brave some time standing on line to exercise that right in the U.S.
This reminds me of an interview I heard in the 80s, before the fall of apartheid in South Africa. An exchange student from that country who had been placed in a high school in Washington, DC, was asked about differences in outlook. “I do not understand something about this country,” he told the interviewer. “Here, you have everything that people in my country are fighting and dying for — that your own great heroes fought and died for — everything! And you don’t use it.”
Blessings on the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people. May they soon be free to choose their own future; may they enjoy and cherish a hard-won democracy made real by their own actions. And may we learn to do the same.