(This is part 7 of the series, for previous episodes, click here)
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Elections are the cornerstone of a parliamentary democracy. After a fixed amount of time, the public gets a chance to elect people from among themselves whom they think are worthy of making decisions on their part. A true democracy ensures maximum participation of the populace. There are different types of democratic system based on powers allotted to different houses of parliament. In most of democratic countries, there are two houses of parliament with the winning party forming the government with a Prime Minister at the helm, selecting a cabinet of ministers to help in governance. In the United States, Presidential form of democracy is practiced and there is no Prime Minister.
After every four years, elections are held for the U.S House of representatives, Senate and Presidency. The election of a President is not through direct votes but through an electoral college. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Each candidate running for President in your state has his or her own group of electors. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled. The electors are typically local political leaders chosen by their parties. The presidential election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The winner of the popular vote doesn’t necessarily win the Electoral College.
Our visit to the United States was planned so that we could witness the pre-election activities and then the election itself.
I have witnessed elections in Pakistan, in 1997 and 2008 but I was confident that it would be a very different experience. Our day started with a meeting at Atlantic Council’s Office about Health in South Asia. As a doctor myself, it was interesting to know work being done in the field of public health in South Asia by USAID and other agencies. After the session, we travelled to Maryland, one of D.C’s adjoining states, to witness the polling. We were taken to White Oak Middle School at New Hampshire Avenue in Maryland. We met Ms. Deepa Iyer there, who was doing an Asian American Survey. We were not allowed to enter the polling area itself but we were able to talk to some of the voters.
Posters and signs telling voters to vote for different propositions were present all around. Brochures detailing the effects of different propositions were also being distributed by volunteers. It was all very peaceful and quite, unlike Pakistan, where a lot of melodrama goes on at the election sites. Following the visit, we travelled to the Jefferson Memorial and later to Lincoln Memorial. The wise words etched on the walls of Jefferson memorial were a sight to behold. We also found a newlywed couple there getting a photo shoot with Mr. Jefferson and his memorial as the background.
The majestic sculpture of Lincoln, sitting like an emperor on his throne, was beautifully carved and is placed between the Capitol building and Washington Monument. The steps in front of Lincoln memorial are famous because of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. (More on Lincoln and MLK in future episodes). It was also the site where “Forrest Gump” met “Jenny” during an awkward speech. The exterior of the memorial contains names of 36 states that were part of the union at the time of his death at one step and names of the 48 states that were part of the union when the monument was built, at another step. We also visited the Vietnam memorial nearby which is a long black wall with thousands of names inscribed on it. Those are the names of the soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War. Children from different schools and visitors from other countries were present at the memorial. We were scheduled to proceed for an Election night party at the Meridian International Office, so we left the place early.
There is no concept of an election night party in Pakistan. There, however, is the habit of aerial firing and calls for a re-election as soon as the polling ends. At the Meridian Headquarters, there were three giant TV screens in three different rooms. One of the screens showed CNN, one was showing MSNBC and the third telecasted Fox News. On entering the premises, we had the option of choosing garlands of either blue or red color (Blue color representing the Democratic Party and Red representing the Republican Party). There were people from different nations in the building including Egyptians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Americans.
It was supposed to be a tough election, following the prolonged election campaigns by Mitt Romney, the republican nominee for Presidency and the incumbent President, Barack Obama of the Democratic Party. Mr. Romney had secured the Republican nomination after a protracted electoral battle against other contenders including former house speaker Newt Gingrich, Tea party favorites Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain, Libertarian Ron Paul and Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. President Obama, on the other hand, faced challenges due to the prolonger wars abroad, rising unemployment and inability to fulfill promises made in the last election.
There was a chance that the electoral battle could go on for long, like the one in the year 2000 between G.W.Bush and Al Gore. The key states were supposed to be Virginia and Ohio. I went with another fellow to Busboys and Poets, a café that we had earlier visited, to get a better feel of the election night euphoria. There was a long queue before we managed to enter a full house. The café was teeming with people and there were multiple Television screens showing the results from different states as they came in. The air was filled with excitement. Every time there was a democratic victory, the crowd cheered out loud and a fresh round of drinks was ordered.
The news about Democrats narrowly edging past Republicans to notch Virginia and Ohio garnered the loudest cheers. We left the café after that and reached our hotel in time to listen to Mitt Romney’s concession. On our way to the hotel, we encountered a Taxi Driver from Punjab (Pakistan’s largest state) and he charged us no fare because we also belonged to Punjab. It was a fitting end to a historic day.