When I finally got my mail-in ballot this week I found myself grasping it tightly, like a precious object someone might steal.
For days I’d been discussing with friends and relatives how to ensure our votes get counted. Does one dare trust the politically discredited post office, or partisan courts that might reject mail-in ballots? Or President Trump, who repeatedly and falsely claims they cause massive fraud, and sends legions of lawyers to suppress them?
Clutching the documents in my hands, I thought: “This is totally bizarre. Is this really the United States?”
And I couldn’t help recalling elections I’ve covered in places like Moscow, Kiev, Baghdad, Cairo, and Tunis, where people risked their lives to demand fair elections. Or Belarus, where hundreds of thousands have demonstrated for weeks to protest an election rigged by dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has arrested, beaten, and jailed thousands.
We used to send election observers to such places to help them understand democracy. Now we must look to their experiences to preview our possible future - if enough U.S. voters don’t awaken by Nov. 3.
Increasingly Trump and his GOP sycophants remind me of how President-for-life Vladimir Putin treats elections. Especially when Trump flat out refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, telling an interviewer: “We’ll see.”
“Get rid of the ballots,” the president says, “and … there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” In other words, if he can somehow — through lawsuits, or simply refusing to quit — finesse mail-in ballots, he can stay in power. And, if his new Supreme Court pick is rushed through before Nov. 3, he hopes the court will approve his putsch.
Trump’s rants remind me of a 2012 interview with Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Russian opposition leader who is now recovering in Berlin from a nerve-agent poison attack. I met Navalny in a bare campaign headquarters in Moscow filled with youthful volunteers, during a time of huge demonstrations over massive rigging of Russian parliamentary elections. He had just burst onto the Russian scene with his gutsy video exposes of gross Kremlin corruption.
Putin was about to be reelected president – no surprise, given the Kremlin’s control of election mechanics along with most media. In Russia, the rigging is done wholesale, with “carousel” voters bused from polling site to polling site in order to cast multiple votes and the most popular opposition leaders banned from the ballot.
“I call it a procedure, not an election,” Navalny told me scornfully, “designed for Putin to be appointed like a tsar.”
Of course, Putin is free to use far more direct methods of intimidation than Trump can. Barred by the Kremlin from running for office, Navalny has survived numerous arrests, imprisonment, physical assault, and a near-fatal poisoning that had to have Kremlin approval. Yet he is determined to return to Russia after he recovers to keep fighting for free elections.
European leaders have demanded an answer from Putin on his poisoning. Trump has remained mum.
Yet the U.S. president is openly promoting his own forms of voter intimidation, proposing that armies of GOP “poll watchers” be sent to investigate his fake claims of fraud, while encouraging extremists like the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” No surprise, the FBI just uncovered a militia plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan, where armed Trump supporters had previously invaded the state house. Emboldened by Trump, who knows what such militias plan next?
Moreover, Trump and his GOP acolytes don’t disguise their hostility towards basic principles of democracy.
Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), who caught COVID-19 at a superspreader event in the White House Rose Garden, just spelled out that Trumpist mode of thought in an astonishing tweet. “Democracy isn’t the objective,” Lee wrote, “liberty, peace and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
In Trumpspeak that means free elections be damned if voters don’t choose him.
Lee apparently had no idea that he was parroting classic Communist party dogma. Promotion of “prosperity” over democracy was the mantra used by every communist dictator who wanted to suppress free elections prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. China’s leaders still use that dogma to justify party control.
The ebullient and brilliant Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov denounced that dogma to me in Moscow in 2012. Explaining why the Moscow middle class was demonstrating massively in the streets, he said: “This revolution is not about jobs. It is about freedom.” The demonstrators, he added, were “not thinking about sausage and vodka,” but about the freedom to vote out corrupt leaders who refused to leave.
Nemtsov was shot dead in February 2015 as he strolled right outside the Kremlin’s walls - an assassination that also required Kremlin approval. Since then, Russian demonstrators have faced mass arrests and jail terms. Putin blocks or arrests any opposition leader who challenges his rule.
Trump can’t eliminate his opponents with the finality of a Putin. Yet he is haranguing his attorney general to prosecute and jail his opponents. And to borrow a phrase from Navalny, Trump seeks an election that will appoint him tsar.
But this is not Russia, Mr. Trump.
As I walk to City Hall to hand deliver my ballot to the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, I’m thinking of Nemtsov, who refused to give up - and of Navalny who won’t quit. Their courage reminds us how lucky we are to (still) have the power to change leaders. And why we must ensure that every citizen’s vote is counted so a would-be tsar can’t wreak havoc with the polls.