America's Soviet Election System
America may eschew the cruel details of Soviet elections, but we negate voters’ agency just the same as the USSR.
For years, my husband has been telling me that I need to share this wild family anecdote with my readers. I’ve put it off for so long, and the United States has changed so much, that the story is no longer interesting for solely anthropological reasons.
The year was 1984, and the hero of the story is my big sister, who was then a college student in her late teens. Like everyone else, one day that March she was expected to report to her local precinct to perform some voting ritual. The USSR made Election Day a holiday, giving the workers a day off to celebrate their Sovietness.
For my sister, however, it was a chance to sleep in until early afternoon and then spend a few hours on the telephone. Maybe doing a little homework and playing “Rondo Alla Turca” on the piano. Then phone her friends again.
When the doorbell rang that evening, my sister opened the door. A short corpulent woman in a dark coat said she was from the polling place and that they knew that she hadn’t voted yet. My sister reassured the lady that she was on her way, closed the door on her and asked me to not tell grandma about the visitor. Of course, I was happy to be part of the conspiracy.
That wasn’t the end of it. The woman showed again up sometime later, explaining that the day was coming to an end but that her comrades couldn’t close the precinct yet because some irresponsible individuals hadn’t voted yet. You see, Soviet elections boasted a near 100 percent turnout. My sister, this time on her way to the shower, promised to swing by the polling place shortly. Eleven-year-old me was in awe of her sweet-talking the election official. Certainly, I was on her side, and I wouldn’t tell grandma.
But when the lady rang the bell for the third time, my sister was taking her hour-long shower, and it was grandma who came to the door. Hearing about the situation, she turned pale. It was the Soviet generation gap: members of the First Soviet Generation, my grandmother among them, were the survivors of Stalinism. They knew that disobedience can be costly. Members of the Last Soviet Generation, on the other hand, were apolitical and rebellious.
When my mom returned home later that evening, grandma spent the night complaining to her about how my sister would one day get herself in real trouble, and that she had to go to the polling place in the freezing temperatures with her hair still wet. But mostly she was incensed that, although it was not a real election—in the USSR, there was just one Communist candidate for every position on the ballot—the authorities still felt the need to round up everyone to play pretend. She kept bringing up that point for the rest of her life, long after the Soviet Union became extinct.
That family story no longer feels outlandish; in all but minutia, it has ceased to be a warning about socialism.
That Soviet situation is now not so very different from the electoral process in, for example, California, where, two years ago, under the guise of a public health emergency, Governor Gavin Newsom authorized absentee ballots to be sent to every voter. It worked so well for him that he later made the change permanent. Conveniently, ballot harvesting, also called ballot trafficking, which allows the collection of mail-in voting ballots by a third party, had already been legalized in 2016.
Under the ballot trafficking regime, we don’t drag teenage girls out of bathtubs and send them in freezing cold temperatures to polling places with still-wet hair. Oh no, that would be rude. Instead, party and union functionaries arrive at their doorsteps to pick up the ballot—this type of coercion is far more gentle on all individuals involved. We may eschew certain cruel details of Soviet life, but the attack on privacy feels very Soviet and, more importantly, the negation of agency, the very essence of disenfranchisement, is the same.
The Soviet system was as heavy-handed as it gets. Although it was obvious that we didn’t live in a democracy, the state wanted a show of obedience, so Communist officials either lured their subjects to precincts with patriotic folk music concerts and rare goods—the former was mostly a turn off, but the opportunity to buy some oranges worked like magic—or, in the case of some resisters, dropped by with reminders. In many former Soviet countries, the situation never changed. Free food rations are offered to voters and polling staffers come knocking on apartment doors. That’s one of the reasons why voter participation in the post-Soviet world remains high.
In the USSR, “elections” were play-acted to cover up autocracy. Alexei Yurchak explained in Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More how, in the 1970s and ’80s, the language of Soviet propaganda was designed to give the impression of stability, and the population was enlisted to reproduce slogans written by the Kremlin. Likewise, the results of Soviet “elections” were predetermined, but everyone was mired in the lie of participation, to help create the illusion of an indestructible regime.
America today has a mirror problem. A sense of suspense around the key races is the norm—pundits generate attention-grabbing headlines, polls are interpreted every which way, and bets are placed on PredictIt.org. At the same time, the process itself is becoming increasingly opaque. With voting and balloting taking weeks if not months, many states have retired the idea of Election Day. The ballots can be returned in batches and stored in unsecured boxes. Cameras watching the uncounted ballots go dark in the middle of the night. Citizens are admonished to trust the experts, and reassured computers will not mess with the vote.
This is not the idea of free and fair Western elections that was sold to us, the discontented in the USSR. A real election involves people going to the polls and casting their vote in privacy, but in a way that is observable, so that anyone can see that it is free of coercion. Paper ballots are tallied immediately after the precincts close. And, of course, a valid form of identification is required to vote. One day, one ballot, one voter, one ID.
Multiple intentional deviations from this model raise doubts about whether what we are witnessing qualifies to be called an election at all.
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An election process that doesn’t inspire trust is damaging to our democratic institutions even if no shenanigans take place. Skepticism is a part of being human, and watching the arrival of unsolicited ballots addressed to individuals no longer alive naturally invites skepticism about the alleged democratic values of California. Once skepticism sets in, why should any citizen lower himself to casting his vote in an election that seems like a sham? By merely cooperating with the exercise the voter is granting validity to what might be a lie.
Over the last two years, “election denier” has become a favorite slur of leftist pundits. Certainly, for the system to function citizens need to be able to put their trust in the process. But politicians who needlessly and cynically destroy that confidence are both short-sighted and immoral. It is not incumbent on the citizens to put their faith in sketchy voting arrangements. It is incumbent on governing bodies to create transparent, fool-proof procedures to win back the trust of citizens.
Asking Americans to accept an election system that is anything but airtight makes a mockery of their civic duty, as much a mockery as a precinct official demanding my sister vote. It forces people to accept what they worry is a lie and will, sooner rather than later, undermine social trust and confidence in our government.