lessons from America

One in the (postal) bag for Obama

A number of my American friends living in London have already sent back their absentee ballots.  Meghan herself has just done it – see photo of her NY ballot paper and read her comments on the process.

Last Friday I met up for dinner with a friend who is registered to vote in Florida.  Miami-Dade County to be precise.  That was one of the hotspots back in 2000, with shenigans (definitely), irregularities (alleged) and the likelihood of votes not counting that should have been, and vice-versa.  Anyway, she showed me a sealed envelope with her completed ballot inside.  A vote for Obama she proudly proclaimed. The envelope was posted over weekend – apparently the lady at the post office even wished her luck.  Now the ballot paper should be winging its merry way to Florida to await being processed and added into the Obama column once polls have closed and votes are counted.

Or will it? …. The counting of absentee ballot papers is a contentious and complicated issue, and plenty of urban myths and anecdotes abound.  I’ve done some web research on it (useful discussions here, here and here) but don’t claim this is a definitive answer.  Absentee ballots [postal votes in UK parlance] are counted separately from in-person votes and often totalled up separately; sometimes on election night, but usually it can take several weeks, especially as some states allow absentee ballots to come in up to ten days after close of polling.  My belief is that Florida is one of those states – it certainly used to be.  The official guidelines say the ballot “must be mailed or delivered in person to the Supervisor of Elections no later than 7 p.m. on election day.”  That could mean, as has happened in the past,  that ballots are continued to be accepted for a defined provided that they are postmarked no later than the day of the election.  Or even in the absence of a postmark (as I saw remarked in one place and I don’t know if this is still true or not) if the witness’s signature is dated no later than the election day.  Either way, the official result, as certified by the State’s top election official, is often not for several weeks after the election itself.  But that final result does include all the verified absentee ballots.  So the answer is yes, absentee votes do count.

However, there are a couple of caveats; although hopefully some of these should have been lessened by the passing of the Help America Vote Act.   A major problem (in Florida in 2000 especially and other places too) was the lack of a properly implemented standard for physically verifying and counting those absentee ballots.  Different pollworkers and different counties might interpret what constituted a valid vote in a  different way.  Primarily, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, there needs to be “tighter security and better training for poll workers counting absentee ballots.”   One other problem my friend didn’t encounter but in the past has been significant is the late sending out of ballots to voters. As Fairvote reports, “in Broward County, Florida, 58,000 absentee ballots were sent out late for the 2004 election. Many voters simply did not have the time to mark their ballot and send it in to be counted”.  Still to early to know if it might be factor this election.

There is one plausible way though that some absentee voters could feel themselves disenfranchised: that is politically.   As pointed out on the FairVote website:

“How many times on election night have we gone to bed thinking a particular candidate or ballot measure was winning in a close race, only to find that after absentee and provisional ballots were counted the results had changed? …  If the race is close, final determination will depend on the counting of absentee and provisional ballots. If the race is not close, we will know who won on election night.”

If you aren’t in a battleground state or if one candidate wins by a landslide, your vote will count in the official tallies, but it makes no difference to the media and political narrative of the election.  However, if in the state you voted in the result is close or perceived to be so, then suddenly your ballot paper matters again.  It’s not just down to the voters though.  The decision on whether your vote is seen as important on election night and how it can affect the result can also be made by the TV networks if/when they ‘call’ a race and by the pundits and party spokespeople as they spin that decision and the campaigns’ response. And we all know of or remember the horrors of that fateful night in November 2000.  2004 wasn’t far off either. 

Here’s hoping every absentee vote does count this time.  But time, luck, human failings, partisan judgement and the overall electoral picture will determine how close we get to that ideal.  And fingers-crossed in Florida especially: for the right result democratically and politically.


October 23, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, systems | , , , , | 1 Comment

Florida answers magnificently

Holy moly.  This is awesome. Remember the Big Schlep.  I thought my 91 year old relative (she’s a year younger than I remembered) would not be open to persuasion on her vote, such were assumptions about her.  I was so pessimistic I didn’t even bother to contact her.  But my mother stepped up to the plate, fired up by Sarah Silverman’s video, and sent an email to our elderly relative instead.  The email used the talking points which exposed the myths about Obama (like ‘he’s a Muslim terrorist’ etc) and gave the positive reasons to vote for Obama.  And look what she got back today:

“Thank you for your long letter praising our next president, we hope Obama. We and most of our friends are supporters of Obama and we all hope that he will get elected.”

Wow.  That is brilliant. And momentous.  The friends she is talking about are likely to be residents of similar gated retirements communities, the sort not obviously ever in ‘Obama’s column’.  But they are.  And if this picture is repeated across the state, then we may well be looking at Florida turning blue this election, a very handsome electoral college win for soon-to-be President Obama.  Indeed, that is looking the case. Today 538 predict Obama to win Florida by 4.6%.  And‘s aggregate of polling also gives Obama the state by a similar margin.

October 16, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Florida calling

“If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, you’d do it”

So opens Sarah Silverman’s brilliant video promoting ‘The Great Schelp” – a massive co-ordinated effort this past weekend for young Jews to visit their grandparents or other elderly Jewish relatives in Florida and try and persuade them to vote Obama.  And for those who can’t afford the airfare, a phone call instead. For the targets are supposively non-internet savvy.  Not all of them though, as my 92 year old relative in Florida checks her emails daily, in-between sessions on the tennis court, the golf course and the pool. 

As figures quoted on the BBC suggest, the Great Schlep has been huge:

“1.5 million people have downloaded the file. And more than 2.5 million people have viewed comedian Sarah Silverman’s welcome video. The group has more than 18,000 friends on the social networking site Facebook.”

The scale. The audacity. The humour for a serious purpose.  The successful tapping into a cultural network.  The mobilisation for an electoral cause.  The cheap cost of setting it all up. And the use of web-organising for an offline activity, especially one that is about individual face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact.  I am so impressed … and jealous.  This is political activity at its best: making activism very accessible, and  also trying to persuade voters one-by-one based on the personal recommendation of someone close to them. 

Outside of the trade unions, we don’t here really have any non-party actors making the case for voting for a particular candidate/party, and mobilising people to do so.   Our political parties are tainted as brands, either distrusted or simply not seen as relevant or appealing to most people.  So how do you go about making a more credible pitch?  You don’t do it with party branding and official sanction.  Instead, as done here with The Great Schelp, supporters create their own groups and brands – made easier by the power of new technology – and away into their communities they go.  We do have “Scientists for Labour”, “Society of Labour Lawyers”, “The Jewish Labour Movement” and others that my Labour Party diary lists. But the difference is two-fold: (i) they all have the party name in their title and (ii) they are all officially affiliated to the Party, have voting / representation rights etc.   A supporter group like “Africans for Labour” at least is getting closer, but not being an affiliated organisation.

Incidentally, the Republicans had a counter-effort, led by that infamous Democrat, Independent, turncoat and wannabe McCain’s no:2 Joe Lieberman.   He represents the old school in every way: from the way he operates and thinks about politics, to his hawkishness on foreign policy.  The trends are very much going away from him: both in his own state of Conneticut, in Florida and amongst the Jewish population as a whole.  As quoted in that same BBC article:

“Nationwide, Jewish people are twice as likely to vote for Mr Obama than Mr McCain, according to a national survey carried out by J Street, a pro-Israel pro-Middle-East-peace organisation, in July.”

And that mirrors views in Israel itself. “Israelis for Obama” perhaps surprisingly seems to be more than norm than Israelis for McCain.  Though it should be noted, having spoken with my mum who has recently returned from 3 weeks in Jerusalem, that the US elections are not the highest political concern in that country.  They have their own scandals, elections and new leader to worry about.

October 13, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | 2 Comments