By Dr Selwyn Cudjoe
August 24, 2020
On August 2, about eight days before the last election, I took part in a programme that was hosted by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre on the absence of election observers in T&T’s election, hosted by Dr Kumar Mahabir.
The question posed was whether the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) could conduct a fair election in the absence of foreign electoral observers. I answered: “It’s unfortunate that there will be no foreign observers at the August 10 elections, but I do not share the view that their absence would prevent the election from being conducted in a fair manner.”
I continued: “I believe that one’s political connections and/or ethnic fears tend to shape one’s opinion on a topic such as this. If you are a member of the UNC, you are likely to argue that the EBC, known for carrying out free and fair elections, will not act in a fair manner. If you are a member of the PNM, you are likely to say that the EBC has always carried out fair elections and there is no reason to feel that, in the absence of observers, things would be any different this year.”
I also noted that conducting our election in the absence of foreign observers demonstrates a part of our political maturity. “Elections,” I said, “are held in other countries, as in the United States, where voter suppression and other forms of voter fraud are present, particularly as it concerns black and brown people.
“The US does not call for nor do they have foreign voters for their elections, yet they proclaim their elections are free and fair. I do not know if there are election observers in the UK or French elections, yet they proclaim their elections to be fair and free. Why can’t we do the same thing here?”
I didn’t know how prescient I was until I read the observations of Tom Friedman who, in his New York Times column, talked about his fear of the US to hold a free and fair presidential election in November, and President Donald Trump’s elaborate plan to create suspicions in the hearts of Americans about the fairness of the forthcoming presidential election.
In his article, “Will 2020’s election be the end of our democracy”, Friedman complained: “This November, for the first time in our history, the United States of America may not be able to conduct a free and fair election and, should President Trump be defeated by Joe Biden, have a legitimate and peaceful transition of power…
“I have covered banana republic dictators who were more subtle than that in an attempt to rig the elections or undermine the votes for their opponents.” (August 18.)
Friedman was referring to the perceived attempt by Postmaster General Louis de Joy, a friend of President Trump, to sabotage the election by making it difficult for eligible voters to cast their ballots through the mail. In 2016, about 33 million, or one quarter, of eligible American voters voted by mail. Presently, about 67 million, or about a half of eligible American voters, support voting by mail, particularly in this age of Covid-19 (an ABC News/Wall Street Journal poll, April 2020).
Inherent in Friedman’s fear is the assumption that the US conducts freer elections than the so-called banana republics. After all, it took the US over 100 years after the US Civil War to allow black people to vote freely when it passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
However, even today, the US, particularly the Republicans, does everything in its power to prevent black and brown people from exercising their franchise freely and fairly. Last Thursday, President Trump declared that he will do everything to prevent black and brown people from voting: “We’re gonna have sheriffs, we are going to have law-enforcement officers and we’re gonna have hopefully US attorneys.”
We must begin to question the assumption that the US, by being an advanced economic power, is necessarily superior to other countries—these banana republics—in ensuring all of its citizens have the right to vote. This is not borne out by the facts. From its inception, the US has done everything to prevent black Americans from voting. It is a practice that continues up until today.
In spite of some hiccups, T&T can be proud of how it conducted its elections and the mature manner in which our people assume its political responsibilities. Approximately 58 per cent and 67 per cent of the eligible voters voted in the elections of 2020 and 2015, respectively. In the US, 58.1 and 61.6 per cent of the voter-eligible population voted in the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections, respectively.
We must be careful about the myths about the superiority of practices in these advanced economies as compared to what happens in “banana republics”. In some areas we perform much better than many advanced societies, which is why we should do nothing to weaken or bring institutions such as the EBC into disrepute.
This is why I ended my remarks on Mahabir’s show in the following manner: “Somewhere, sometime, we have to make a strike for our freedom and learn to trust one another. The conduct of our elections in the absence of foreign observers should be taken as a sign of a maturing democracy; of a people who have faith in one another; of a people who are ready to conduct their own affairs.”
We should thank the EBC for this. We should also compliment the politicians and the people for the responsible manner in which they conducted themselves. That we carried out those sombre civic responsibilities in the absence of foreign observers is an even more stupendous achievement. We should be proud of ourselves.