The people who best know the value of free and fair elections are those who spent time living without them:
- in anarchy (as in Somalia 1991-2012),
- under a drug lord (Medellin Cartel in Columbia, 1976-93),
- under a military junta (Argentina 1976-83 and Myanmar today back to 1962),
- under a dictator (N. Ceaușescu 1965-89, S. Husain, 1979-2006, D. Ortega today),
- under an autocracy (Jim Crow South 1865-1968, Venezuela today), or
- under an occupying army (portions of Eastern Ukraine today).
Here are some advantages that regular people living under anarchy, drug lords, juntas, dictators, autocrats, and armies do not get to enjoy:
- Regular opportunities to participate in choosing their leaders – often without any violence – if voters trust elections to be both free and fair.
- Regular opportunities to hold their leaders accountable – and to throw out those who don’t do a good job.
- Lawmakers who feel motivated to perform well – on our behalf – not theirs – because they are accountable to the voters.
- Freedom of information, speech, and assembly – so that citizens can learn how well their leaders performed and who is challenging them – and seek to persuade others of their assessments.
- A wide range of civil liberties so that those on the losing side of a vote are not tyrannized and can compete again and again in future elections.
Elections are a way to shift the balance of power towards all citizens and away from the most powerful few.
Instead of assassinations, bribery, coups, disinformation, and wars, political competition is limited to who can earn enough votes to gain the right to legislate, and which legislation can earn enough votes to become law.
That shift can bring a feeling of legitimacy to the selection of our leaders – when they are chosen in a free and fair process and not imposed.
Free and fair elections can also encourage a healthy competition for the best problem-solving policies – creating better jobs and strengthening the nation – when voters are not divided into loyalist camps or polarized political identities.
These advantages can easily be undermined or even ended, first for a few, and potentially for all, by allowing any of these actions to take place:
- Making election timing unpredictable or cancelling them altogether
- Legislators choosing voters instead of voters choosing legislators
- Limiting who can vote and run for office – one party, one ethnicity, one religion
- Giving some people more voting power than others – as the British used to do
- Refusing to participate in elections
- Intimidating voters or candidates
- Bribing voters or candidates
- Misinforming or deliberately confusing voters
- Intimidating poll workers
- Manipulating vote counts
- Deliberately sowing doubts about vote counts in spite of accurate results
- Refusing to accept the results of free and fair elections
These attacks on elections are much more likely when voters are manipulated (polarized) into believing loyalty or identity is more important than finding the candidates with the best problem-solving ideas.
We don’t have to fall for it. The first step is to recognize the manipulation.
Image: Arrest of anti-Ortega protestor ahead of 2021 election in Nicaragua. La Prensa.