Comparing Bolivian and American Elections

After going to my local polling station yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help but make some striking comparisons between US mid-term elections and Bolivia’s constituent assembly election, which was held on July 2, 2006. In both cases, the airwaves, both television and radio, were inundated with propaganda and negative campaign ads.

In both cases, there were accusations of malfeasance and voter suppression, with references being made to previous elections in which voters were harassed at the polls or names mysteriously disappeared from the voter registries.

However, there were also major differences. In the Bolivian elections, a geographic split between the Andean highlands and the tropical lowlands played itself out in a national referendum for departmental autonomy. The vote for autonomy centered around Prefectural rights to determine their own budgets and to develop their own sources of foreign funding for regional development projects. Because President Evo Morales’ base is in the highlands, with strong opposition to his presidency in the tropical lowlands, the vote was predictably split along partisan lines between these two geographic regions, with the tropical areas voting overwhelmingly in favor of autonomy and the highlands overwhelmingly against.

Still, there was confusion as to the what exactly this vote meant, and the often illiterate Quechua population in the rural hinterlands was confused by the Spanish word “autonomia”. Even the more literate populations in the small towns were confused. Was the vote to be counted by departments, or was it a national referendum? In the case of the former, would only some departments be autonomous and others not? How would this play out in practice? Lack of information made intelligent voting difficult.

The most striking difference, however, was much more intangible. It was the feeling of the vote. If you look at a calendar, you’ll realize that July 2nd was a Sunday. Voting was scheduled on a day when nobody was working, so that everybody could get to the polls without hurry or hassle; everybody’s schedule for that day revolved around making a trip sometime around mid-morning or early afternoon to the local polling station.

I was in a small town during the vote, so everybody walked. The whole community was out in full force, filling the local high school, resulting in long lines and vibrant political discussion while family and friends waited for others to finish up. And local entrepreneurs were outside of the polling station, selling refresco to wet your whistle, cakes, plates of sausage and meat mixed with fried potatoes. The event was a community affair, and it felt like democracy.

In contrast, Americans vote on a Tuesday. We must take time off work (which we are permitted by law), or hustle to the polling station before or after work, where we feel rushed to get home so we can make dinner, feed the kids, and then watch the results on CNN. The “vibrant political discussion” is conducted by James Carville and Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and the significance of the vote is carefully dissected for us by these professional pundits as we uneasily wonder if the black box electronic voting machine counted our vote accurately. In essence, American democracy feels electronic, while Bolivian democracy feels organic.

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