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Samvaad: A Conversation


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Saturday, October 30, 2004

 

As of now...

It is next to impossible to predict this one but some formulations if realized can help us making some safe predictions.

Here are some of them:

A) Whoever wins BOTH Florida AND Ohio will most likely win the Presidency. Currently the race in both states is too close to call.

B) If FLORIDA and OHIO are split that will then create a big problem for Bush. In that event to offset that loss (esp Florida) he will have to win Wisconsin AND Minnesota. Iowa would be a plus. So, the split works in Kerry's favor IF he wrests Pennsylvania AND Michigan. Michigan is still surprisingly shaky for Kerry.

C) Both candidates basically have to win all the states they or their party won in 2000. For Kerry he has to win one more! Bush coasts to a victory if he retains his states from last time.

Even national polls are split with a Newsweek poll showing Bush with a 5 point lead but then both the Zogby and Washington Post daily tracking polls are showing Kerry with a 1 point lead. It is very hard to discern momentum and so this election in the end will come down to TURNOUT! TURNOUT! TURNOUT! The higher the TURNOUT the better are Kerry's chances. Meteorologists are predicting rain on Tuesday in Ohio. If that dampens turnout that could favor Bush.

Both parties have worked hard at the grassroots. Now it's game time.

Peace.
Rohit.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

 

The "actual" election

After the debacle of the 2000 election that finally exposed longstanding issues in the electoral process Congress was galvanized (more like shamed) into action. No one wanted a repeat on 2004. Sorry to see those dreams being crushed. But to Congress' credit in 2002 they did pass the Help America Vote Act of 2002. President Bush signed it into law.

If you visit the Department of Justice website it says the following:

"Under Section 401, the Attorney General has enforcement authority for the
uniform and nondiscriminatory election technology and administration
requirements that apply to States under Sections 301, 302, and 303."
For those interested in details, read through sections 301, 302 and 303. A cursory reading reveals that Congress basically preserved the myriad of polling systems across the country but made sure they met new requirements. One of the requirements DOES mention a written record for a recount situation. I think there is definitely some legal confusion about that and as can be expected it has been duly challenged in the courts against electronic voting machines. One thing that I find startling is that states have till January 1st, 2006 to implement this!

I know democracy is all about choice and America holds its federalism close to its heart but too many choices for 50 states are creating an electoral process that is undermining the most basic democratic exercise. I think it's time for a complete standardization of the electoral process across the country. India has successfully achieved that and I don't see why the United States would have any technical problem in doing so.

The outgoing Congress has been quite active on the Election Reform front. Many procedural laws have been passed but I still feel that states are still messing up federal elections. The fact that 58,000 absentee ballots get lost in Florida where the last election was decided by 537 votes is a major scandal. It should be a cause of outrage against the secretary of state's office who had 4 years to fix things even though they're blaming this one on the postal office, who reject that blame.

I guess it's going to take another close election, more cynicism in the political process to finally move people in the right direction. It's hard to talk of issues when a large percentage of people in this country believe that the next "elected" President is going to be illegitimate. Welcome to the world of political polarization where mistrust reigns and the only thing certain is the uncertain.

Peace.

 

Legitimate Elections

One of the biggest controversies with the 2000 US Presidential Elections was the debacle in the state of Florida. If you don't recall, the controversy was around ballots which could not be read clearly - "Hanging Chads". The US Supreme Court took on this issue in the context of recounting ballots where the "intent of the voter" could not be easily discerned. The results of that decision can be reviewed in this New York Times article published the day that the decision came out. It is interesting in that is includes some analysis of the other opinions published by the Supreme Court in addition to the majority opinion.

Whatever one's opinion is on the Supreme Court decision, the fact that such a controversy erupted highlights a much more fundamental problem in the way that federal elections are conducted in the United States. The reality is voting in the United States is that basically the only thing which the federal government guarantees is that every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote (except for a few exceptions such as for felons). Other aspects of voting is left up to the individual states and counties. This had not really been a national issue before the 2000 election, but since then, this has become an increasingly worrying situation.

We're not talking about voter intimidation or illegal tactics (although those are a concern, they can be addressed through better enforcement of existing laws). The worrying situation is that in federal elections such as those for President or Congress, the federal government doesn't require any minimum "quality" for polling locations or for the process which states and counties use to run elections and count votes.

What this means is that there are various ways in which people submit their votes - the traditional paper ballots, optical scanning machines where tick marks are read by scanner, and the new touch screen machines are just a few examples. There is certainly controversy around the touch screen machines because, depending on the type of machine, there is no receipt or secondary method to confirm the vote. This is one area of where it would make sense for the Federal Elections Commission to weigh in with standard for the types of voting machines which can be used in federal elections and the ways in which elections officials should maintain these machines to ensure proper functioning. Unfortunately, the FEC only seems to concern itself over campaign financing.

If you've read deep into the NY Times article linkd to above, you'll notice that the actual court case brought before the Supreme Court was regarding the recounting of questionable ballots. The decision made was based partly on the ability of Florida election officials to recount ballots quickly enough with certainty. This highlights another area of grave concern over the American elections process. There is no federal standard for counting or recounting ballots in the case on controversy, mistakes, or questions. Each state has different standards on when a recount should be conducted - many require a recount when the vote is within 1/2%, but it varies.

So after the controversy around the 2000 election, one would expect the federal government to weigh in on this and publish standards for counting and recounting ballots in federal elections. Again, this would be perfect for the FEC to pick up, but again, they do not oversee this area.

There are certainly other areas of concern with the process of voting in the United States. This piece has only touched upon some procedural areas, but there are many more issues around enforcement of elegibility rules, voter intimidation, and access to polling locations. All of these issues concern us about the quality of the elections process here. One can cynically question the legitimacy of President Bush's term because of problems in Florida, but safe to say that these issues were not in the public's eye then. In the four years since then, Florida has made strides to improve upon their elections process, but why not the federal government?

For the elections coming on November 2nd, it would not be surprising if various lawsuits are brought on the grounds of procedural errors. If the campaigns are ready to pursue these issues in a court of law, why isn't the federal government doing anything to discount the need for such lawsuits. Any time a material change in the results of an election could occur on the basis of these procedural failures and subsequent lawsuits, one has to wonder why there is not a larger uproar. Until there are federal standards for the election of federal officials, the legitimacy of every winner could be questioned.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

 

The Heat is ON!

Friends,

I feel like the home-stretch, the final lap of a long race is underway. Yes, the race for the Presidency of the United States. You know when you watch those long 10,000m races at the Olympics that take about 23-24 minutes to finish you watch the start and then you keep checking back. And then as the final laps approach only a few runners are left in contention. And then the bell rings signalling the final lap. Similarly, this race began a couple of years ago. With almost 10 candidates up for the Democratic nomination. And after a gruelling primary season and rough Presidential campaign we are down to two runners. The electoral bell can now be heard across the land.

For a political junkie like me 2004 has been a great year. Two of the most prominent democracies on the planet are electing their executive and legislators. The Indian experience was exhilarating for the surprise it threw at observers. And now another huge election.

Outside the battleground/swing states there is no place more abuzz then Washington. I am lucky enough to be in the vicinity to absorb all the political talk and analysis. Most of it absurd but then again democracy is a reflection of the prevailing culture so what else can we expect from a culture that thrives on sensationalism. But enough of this abstract unsensational talk. The question is who's going to win?

Beyond the sarcasm that guises my cynicism this election will have a tremendous impact. No matter how superficially the electorate makes the final judgment. In the end I am optimistic that such an important judgment will be well thought out. From an issues perspective we all know what has dominated this campaign - Iraq, Terrorism and the Economy. The question is there going to be one issue that will swing voters one way or the other as they head to the polls.

I feel that voters will vote on general issues as opposed to something specific. And in that regard the 55% of the voting population that feels the country is headed in the wrong direction could mean trouble for the incumbent. But then 9/11 has transformed the political landscape here. People may feel that they are in the middle of a war and even though things are not as good as they could be they are better off weathering this storm in the same ship. Hence, people may vote cast a "gut feeling" vote.

This late in the game I'm not sure if the steady stream of bad news from Iraq is changing any minds. I feel there is an unfortunate sense of immunity from the ground realities there. Something "spectacular" will have to take place to shift the electoral dynamics in any significant way. And this is a sad commentary about modern democracies where violence is easily integrated in the political landscape. The anti-war side is going to protest at this generalization but the majority of the population felt that the war is the right thing to do. So, go figure.

The post 9/11 landscape has made it hard to discern the reasons for the economic downturn. In a non-war time the electorate would place more blame of such a downturn on the incumbent but some confusion exists this time in doing that. That is because people believe that the attacks hit the economy hard. Now other economic data combined with fiscal policy can lead people to feel differently. A tax-cut in time of war is unprecedented but then the incumbent administration comes back with the argument that the economy needed a stimulus. The interesting thing here is that each issue has two-sides but more often than not one analysis is deeper. This analysis is then responded to by rhetoric and not counter-analysis. And that's sad. Bottomline - the voters aren't helped in making up their mind.

There are people hurting all around this country. From families of soldiers on the frontline to single mothers without health insurance to factory workers whose jobs have been shipped away... their problems are real. The battleground states are seeing a battle on these issues. Even though the electoral college has reduced the political size of this country at least the issues being debated are of serious national and international consequence.

Yet after all this talk of issues and consequentiality there is a fundamental obstacle American democracy has to overcome - to conduct a fair election in the 21st century. It is telling when 40% of the population feels that their vote is NOT going to be counted! That is an alarming state of affairs. More on that coming up...

The polls are swinging so wildly that presenting any poll data would not make much sense. But you can check them at our page:



Keep checking back with us. Send your comments to info@yidream.org

Peace.
Rohit.


Saturday, October 16, 2004

 

Major defeat for BJP

Just months after a stunning defeat in the general election the BJP has suffered another body blow. The party's alliance with the Shiv Sena suffered a major defeat in the important state of Maharashtra. The incumbent Congress-NCP alliance barely fell short of a simple majority. The final results show out of 288 assembly seats contested the Congress-NCP combine have won 140 (145 needed for a majority) and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine secured 118 seats. The Congress alliance shouldn't have a problem conjuring up support to form the next government.

The BJP's defeat is noteworthy on many fronts. After the national debacle in May when the Congress shocked them in the parliamentary elections the BJP badly needed a morale booster. Maharashtra was one state where they had a good chance of regaining some political momentum by defeating the incumbents. The anti-incumbency factor that dominates polity in India had the Congress alliance worried as well. A victory for the BJP would have stopped the bleeding and given hope for a revival. That hope is now lost. The BJP entrusted the emerging leadership of its party to work these elections. They have failed. With the older leadership on the way out this signals a strategy vacuum in the BJP. The BJP's national status has thus taken a beating.

At the state level this verdict displays a level of political saturation for the BJP and its chief ally the Shiv Sena. The alliance's "Hindutva" calling failed to deliver. The religious and regional exclusivity that the alliance covertly pushed on the electorate was rebuffed. The inability of the BJP alliance to motivate people on issues of development against a not so popular incumbent shows a paucity of real policy thinkers within the party. If I were the BJP leadership I would find that alarming.

The Congress alliance must not see this as an overwhelming mandate. They must proceed in a sincere spirit of cooperation with all sides and fix the mistakes they made in their last term. They have a great opportunity on their hands and one would hope that they can move beyond infighting and achieve something for the people of the state.

Sonia Gandhi's leadership is now being commended by the BJP too. That says something. She has clearly emerged as a national leader. Her giving up the post of the Prime Minister and instead working for the party is paying dividends. The Congress is slowly but surely emerging after a decade or so of political oblivion. They must, however, not become complacent. Something very difficult in politics.

This victory gives the Manmohan Singh government a much needed shot in the arm. With the BJP, their chief opposition, somewhat on the ropes they may have an easier time getting things done. The hope is that they do the right things. All in all a momentous day for Indian politics as this result signals the start of an interesting chapter in the polity of the nation.

Peace.
Rohit.




Sunday, October 10, 2004

 

October 13th - Important day for Indian Politics

The Indian state of Maharashtra will go to the polls on Wednesday, October 13th to elect its next legislature. The composition of the outgoing assembly that comprises 288 seats - Indian National Congress + NCP alliance (133) and BJP + Shiv Sena (125) reflects the current national political composition. The Congress and its allies can deliver the BJP and its allies a serious blow by retaining control of the state. On the other hand a victory in this very prominent industrial state can breathe new life into a dispirited BJP alliance. The stakes are very high for Maharashtra in particular and the country at large.

Maharashtra, which has the second-largest parliamentary contingent (48/543), is a crucial state from an economic and social perspective. With Mumbai as its capital in some quarters this election is being seen as a referendum on the Congress (UPA) government's economic policies in New Delhi. This could at best be seen as a secondary issue. The people of the state will still vote on issues more directly affecting them. On social lines the Congress and the NCP have aggressively combated the exclusivitst politics of their opponents - both religious as well as regional. The Shiv Sena has been discredited over the years for its violence and intimidation against non-natives in the state. The opposition alliance has since moderated itself but only the polls will tell how sincere the electorate finds these steps.

Many reports suggest that both alliances have had to battle rebellions from dissatisfied segments of their own parties. Politically speaking the rebellions seem to have cancelled out each other. One thing of note that an article in today's Hindustan Times (by Pankaj Vohra) points to is that the top leadership of the BJP alliance has been absent or ineffective whereas the Congress has brought in its star campaigners like Ms.Sonia Gandhi and PM Dr.Manmohan Singh. This can interpreted in different ways.

I feel that the BJP has much more at stake. With their strength in the parliament significantly reduced they desperately need to win this election for meaningful political survival. A win for the Congress/NCP alliance would be a shot in the arm for the Manmohan Singh government. A much needed one for a government in office on a razor thin majority. So this election is important on many counts for observers within the state, within the country and for all of those outside India interested in following Indian politics. Check back with us at our India site for the results later this week.

The election season is heating up the world over. Democracies are on the move to declare their preferences that will determine the course of this young century.

Peace.
Rohit.

NOTE : You can get a breakdown of the outgoing assembly by clicking here.

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