Chris Blattman

Before we bemoan the Afghan election too loudly…

In some locales, particularly the South, voting was still an oral and public act: men assembled before election judges, waited for their names to be called, and then announced which candidates they supported.

…As the number of office to be filled through elections grew, printed ballots gradually replaced handwritten ones, and political parties themselves began to prepare printed ballots, both to assist and monitor their voters. Abuses of the system were (sometimes) checked by the passage of laws requiring all ballots to be of uniform size and color…

That is Alexander Keyssar in The Right to Vote, a history of US elections and democracy.

For a time, roughnecks might check your pockets on the way to the ballot box, sending you back way home (perhaps with bruises) were you carrying the “wrong” ballot.

Not long ago, particularly in New York, many of the polling booths were in pubs. To vote you had to make your way through a screaming mob of drunken partisans.

I’m mortified over the Afghan election mess. It helps (a little) to remember that American democracy is no Athena, springing forth whole from the heads of immortals.

Yes, that’s my comforting news: everything will be just fine in 150 years.

7 Responses

  1. We’re not there yet. In 2004 I voted in Miami, and my polling place was a golf clubhouse in a gated community. How many people didn’t vote because that intimidated them?

    1. in comparison with brazilian eletronic voting, american pollings are a mess.
      besides that, you still have indirect election to presidency! no, no, no….

  2. This reassurance serves to remind us all how important it is to take the “longer view” from the “wider lens”. Beyond that, there are potential cathartic effects to individuals from knowing that, in these deeply unsettling times, the Internet has come along just in time to make the enlightened and the expert, such as yourself, available to us of a more ordinary kine, to turn to whether for perspective or for advice.

    I realize this may strike some as unreasonable (particularly if people were aware that I am in my senior years), but I feel moved to confess to feeling newly imbued with a sense of revitalization from empowered decisiveness!

    However, I have to admit to one lingering concern (that I suspect may be considered quite unreasonable): that your post was not precise in identifying which place it was where “everything will be fine in just 150 years”.

    I know, I know: the context of the post as a whole suggests that you intended the closing sentence to be understood as referring to Afghanistan. It might also be argued that this should have been more than obvious to any reader from the presence of the “joke” implied in that same sentence — the one premised on the supposition that no one who is alive today in these horrible circumstances will be alive to see the better outcome. I feel tempted to make a remark like “Good one that; subtle.”. But, while I do not suggest this necessarily disposes of the entire ‘obviousness’ argument, I am not confident that enough Americans would accept that premise to render it obvious as a joke.

    Be that as it may, sleeping dogs aside (including any chuckling to themselves in repose), I feel that the phenomena of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly (the television personality, not the construction contractor), Sean Hannity, FoxNews channel, the hosts of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC, the vast majority of FoxBusiness channel and CNBC, the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the management of TIME magazine, and much of talk radio throughout the nation, constitute a compelling counterargument to the ‘obviousness’ argument.

  3. True. I mean, at a similar stage of development in the UK, poor people and women weren’t allowed to vote, and the rich voted (through the HoL) to ratify a movement in which they appropriated land that had previously been common (and used by the poor to support themselves).

    The important point to make is not ‘give it 150 years’, but that we should change the way we conceive development. The West currently tells poor countries: “we want you to look like we look now. So get replicating”, rather than “we want you to go through the processes that got us looking like we look now”. It’s an important distinction and one that, if grasped, would lead to a much more historical and nuanced view of development.

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