Monday, March 15, 2004

I was listening to NPR's (News Painted Red, according to the neoconservative congtingent) Marketplace show on the way into work this morning, and a story on yesterday's elections in Russia caught my attention.

It seems like Vlad Putin easily won reelection yesterday, garnering a rather eye popping 71% of the vote. It's hard to say whether this overwhelming victory was an affirmation by Russian voters of the job Putin has done over the past four years, or whether it's simply a reflection of the lack of viable candidates for high office in Russia. If I recall the report correctly, Vlad's closest rival was the Communist Party candidate, at 14% of the vote. One can assume the 14% was largely either Nader-style protest votes or old school communists yearning for yesterday with a return of Soviet Union style rule.

I guess what caught my attention was that even in Russia, with the "fix" in, over 60% of eligible voters actually went to the polls. The U.S. struggles to get 50% of eligible voters to turn out, even for a presidential election. Your garden variety school board election? Try somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. Basically, school board elections tend to come down to which candidate has the most friends and family in town.

Many ideas have been floated to increase turnout at the polls in the U.S. But let's be frank - high voter turnout is most assuredly not what either party wants or desires. High voter turnout tends to make elections less predictable, and high voter turnout tends to bring out the true independents and disgruntled voters (those who wouldn't vote for an incumbent). With incumbency being the most important attribute to a candidate being successful at the polls, there is no incentive for those currently sitting in office to make serious reforms to the voting process in the U.S.

Internet voting is fraught with peril. There's been a few stabs at reform (most notably, the Michigan primaries this year). But the one simple solution, the one that would instantly raise voter turnout, goes largely ignored. Move elections to a weekend day, Saturday or Sunday. As we saw yesterday, two relatively large countries (Russia at 60% and Spain at 73%) make it work successfully, and even in what some term as rigged elections, large turnouts follow. It's expected. Is this a result of party aparatchiks working the streets to get people out, or is it a result of voter commitment? Hard to say. But it's not hard to say that the process of electing leaders in the U.S. needs some fine tuning.

Another thing that struck me about the Russian elections - the U.S. administration taking umberage to the conduct of the elections. In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States "was concerned about a level of authoritarianism creeping back in the [Russian] society."

Of course, a response from Putin was all but guarenteed:
That set off an angry rebuke from the Cabinet chief of staff and a calmer retort from Putin, who said the 2000 Florida election fiasco in the United States showed the weaknesses of the world's oldest democracy.

Some "see the splinter in another's eye and ignore the log in his own," Putin said. Russia will consider the criticism and "if we think there is something to think about, will draw the corresponding conclusions," he said.

Putin promised that during his second, four-year term "all the democratic achievements will be guaranteed."

He said his government would work to develop the multiparty system, ensure further economic growth and strengthen civil society and media freedom.