Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Of Ballots and Bullets: An ode to voting in America

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but did you really think I’d miss out on the opportunity to be snarky and inflammatory during election season? Fear not, my friends.

Perhaps this post would have been more fitting prior to Election Day, but I guess I was too distracted by the bombardment of political advertisements whenever I walked/drove/watched TV/listened to the radio/went online that for a while I was really struggling to view myself as an intelligent, free-thinking human being capable of making my own informed decisions, let alone writing about them.

Civic duty swag!
Anyway, all sarcasm aside (for now), in the wake of the election, I feel the need to draw some comparisons. This year was my first time ever voting at a polling station. As a college student attending school out of state, then as a military member stationed across the country, I’ve always voted by absentee ballot. My conclusion: it was easy. I ignored the campaign ads and celebrity endorsements (as much as possible), watched debates, did research online, walked half mile to the polling station, checked some boxes, got a sticker, then went home and watched Quantum of Solace until the news had actual legitimate grounds for announcing some results.

I was in Afghanistan for the 2009 Presidential and Parliamentary elections. It was only the country’s second “democratic election,” and the first election that was supposed to be completely Afghan-led. In Paktya province, my unit and the units we were stationed with played a “supporting” role—helping spread information on the election process and candidates and countering insurgent anti-election propaganda through our "radio in a box" systems, the only thing close to mass media in Afghanistan; assisting with training and mission planning for the Afghan security forces; providing reconnaissance and back-up security at the polling sites for several days after they’d been set up, during the election, and post-election while the ballots were counted and transferred to regional, then national sites; coordinating supplies, like tens of thousands of water bottles, for the security personnel at the sites.

Roughly 80% of the local population was illiterate. There were 140 presidential and parliamentary candidates. On the ballot, each was designated with a set of symbols, which had to be explained by representatives from the election committee, who traveled (or attempted to, or didn’t attempt to because they were threatened by insurgents) to outlying areas of the province on educational missions.

For weeks leading up to the election, insurgents passed out night letters—threatening messages left in homes or villages in the middle of the night warning people against voting—and broadcasted propaganda and threats on mobile radio stations that always disappeared before we could track their locations. Threats ranged from chopping off voter’s fingers, which were dyed blue after votes were cast, to chopping off heads.

In Paktya's capital of Gardez, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a coordinated suicide bombing attack on government buildings that left five people dead, calling it an attempt to disrupt the elections.

On Election Day, the government ordered a media blackout in an attempt to prevent news of violence from dissuading potential voters. I sat in our operations center biting my nails. We had teams standing by for Quick Reaction Force convoys, ready to leave at a moment’s notice to defend against an attack or provide medical support. The screens at the front of the room scrolled through threats picked up by military intelligence, and showed grainy surveillance footage of local villages. I kept waiting to see a building explode. I kept waiting to hear the whistle of incoming mortars or gunfire. I kept waiting for Hell to break loose.

It never did. We fared better than we feared. But still, there were more than 50 attacks throughout the province.

And violence was the problem we were planning for, but it wasn’t the only problem. Afghan law requires 27% of parliamentary positions to be held by females. But in conservative areas like Paktya, many women couldn’t vote without being escorted by a male relative. Not surprisingly, female voters were sorely underrepresented.

Post-election, there were widespread allocations of voter fraud, ballot stuffing and intimidation. In some of Paktya’s villages, the number of votes cast dramatically exceeded the number of citizens. The legitimacy of the election was questioned, and a runoff election was scheduled between President Karzai and his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah.

A month later, we would have to do the whole thing again.

Conveniently, in the way government operations are often convenient, the end of the election coincided almost exactly with the beginning of Ramadan. In order to observe this tradition, many of the Afghan security personnel abandoned their posts. The polling sites were left unsecured.

Ultimately, there was no runoff. Abdullah conceded because he saw the system as too corrupt with no hope of a legitimate election.

I wondered how much the average citizen knew. Were they aware of the fraud? The potential for a runoff? That Karzai had been reelected? Did they have access to enough information to even know their stake in the matter?

Though Afghan citizens are starting to gain access to outside information through mediums like our radios, much of their programming is produced by the government. And their main source remains what it has been for hundreds of years: the local mosque.
So many options . . . so little time!

I often tell people that they should never rely on a single source for news. There is no such thing as completely fair and balanced. Every organization is targeting an audience, lobbying for ratings. Every message, directly or indirectly, is communicated with the intent of eliciting a certain feeling or response. So in the wake of this election, amidst the mudslinging that is still going on not only about candidates but also about FOX/CNN/MSNBC, I just have to say that I’m grateful to have access to the full spectrum. I’m grateful to have mass media at my fingertips, in whatever format I prefer. I’m grateful to have the option to wade through as much or as little information as I chose.

And, though I certainly don’t exercise it as much as some of you (you know who you are!), I’m grateful for the opportunity to disagree, to debate, and to complain. You see, in the military you don’t have that option. Military members cannot express political opinions because they represent the military.

So because I’m no longer beholden to those guidelines, I’ll just say this: Very few people would argue that there’s nothing wrong with our current system, and there were definitely things that frustrated me about yesterday’s election. The fact that the two-party system has become paralizingly polarized. The fact that the poor economy was supposedly the #1 issue, but $6 billion was spent funding campaigns. The fact that my polling station was plastered with campaign signs for a particular candidate for senate, but not a single sign for the other. The fact that one of the local ballot initiatives lumped veterans benefits in with unemployment and welfare, and called for supporting these “assistance programs” with cuts in military spending. (Am I the only one who finds funding veteran programs by cutting active military programs ironic? “Military spending” includes troop support programs, healthcare and protective measures . . . and those—along with “excess” manpower that certainly never feels excess, especially to those who lose their jobs after serving faithfully and being promised retirement benefits—are usually the first things to go. It’s not as simple as just bringing troops home. There is necessary, and expensive, post-war support. But that’s another blog post for another time.)

I vote because I can, and because it’s my duty and privilege as a U.S. citizen. But I also know that voting isn’t enough, that one man or woman can’t make everything perfect and certainly can’t make everyone happy. And instead of complaining (or, okay, sometimes while complaining), I choose action. I choose to educate and advocate, and to look for—and make—opportunities to stand up for what I believe in, because I’m pretty damn fortunate to live in a country where I can do that.

So thank you to those of you who voted. You have earned the right to be excited/angry/vindictive/controversial. Just remember that rants and raves are usually just rants and raves. And whatever you’re ranting or raving about, please take a break on Sunday to thank those who have willingly given up their own rights to do so in order to protect yours.