Counting for something
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, October 28, 2012
10/28/12 at 4:21 AM
Out in the wild, on a two-day trip into the heart of the unknown, Richard Soudriette, U.N. election observer and former Tulsan, felt quite Indiana Jones-ish as his party headed for a remote village in a country where obtaining the right to vote had once been more unlikely than finding the lost Ark.
On the way to their assignment, their vehicle became mired in the mud trying to ford a river. The more the vehicle thrashed, the deeper it sank; water rushing upward, lapping the windows and compressing the doors. Soudriette was tallying his remaining minutes on Earth when the guide stomped on the gas pedal one last time, freeing the Range Rover that lumbered on to the next outpost. From there, the observers walked six miles to their assigned village.
Soudriette, who hails from a country where less than 40 percent of the electorate regularly bothers to vote, still remembers the night in a remote village of the African nation of Mali years ago.
"It was an amazing scene in a small school house - after dark, with no electricity. Officials literally were counting ballots one by one, holding them up so that everyone could see them. Lanterns lit their faces. The whole village had come to watch.
"I was moved at the reverence they had for the whole process - the importance attached to voting. It also made me sad to know that we have Americans who won't go out to vote if it's raining."
For 19 years, until he stepped down in 2007 as head of the International Foundation for Election Systems, the former mayoral aide to now U.S. Sen. James Inhofe observed more than 60 elections in every corner of the world. He now works as a consultant.
He saw the lines stretching for blocks as voters stood in the blazing sun, waiting to vote in Mexico. He witnessed the fraud-laden elections in the Philippines where people once had to write their choice on a blank piece of paper instead of marking a printed ballot. What once took weeks to count ballots from the archipelago nation now can be tallied in several hours.
"On the steps of the famous Zagora monastery, I spoke with an 83-year-old 'Babuska' (grandmother)," Soudriette recalls. "She was standing there in a tattered dress and proudly told me that she had voted for Boris Yeltsin despite not having received her pension for several months. I asked why she had voted for Yeltsin and she said, 'I voted for my grandchildren's future and for freedom, instead of for cheap salami.'"
In respect, the salami might have been a wiser choice. But at least that grandmother didn't stay home like far too many Oklahomans and Americans do. In 2008, Oklahoma ranked No. 5 among states in the worst voter turnout - only 55.8 percent.
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Out of the hulking Himalayas, at top of the world years ago, Soudriette watched an old man arrive at the ballot box on the back of his son. Too feeble to walk at 95, he wanted one last thing before he died - to vote. So there, in the thin air of the ancient Kingdom of Nepal and in the heady atmosphere of a newborn democracy, the old man cast his ballot for the first time in 30 years.
Soudriette first told me that story in 1998. It still gives me goose bumps. I sometimes conjure up the image of that old man on election days - whenever I think my vote won't matter. When I cannot stomach the choices offered. When I think I'm too busy to vote. When it's pouring outside, traffic's heavy. Blah. Blah. Blah.
I decided long ago that if somebody's sons or daughters are willing to show up in Afghanistan (or any other war-torn area) and risk their lives to defend my right to vote, then, in their honor, the very least I can do is show up at the polls.
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In 2008, with the election of America's first African-American president, voter turnout reached 54 percent. But by 2010 mid-terms, only 37 percent of eligible voters participated. In 1960, 89 percent of registered Oklahomans voted. By 1996, only 42 percent showed up. In 1994, the percentage of eligible U.S. voters electing a member of the U.S. House was 22 percent. That same year, 76 percent of eligible Germans showed up to vote for a member of their Parliament.
It's a tricky business comparing our voting performance with those of other countries. As we've seen all over the world, winning the right to vote often doesn't produce meaningful results. So, let's put comparisons aside and answer the more direct question: Why have nearly as many Americans signed up in recent years for Facebook as registered to vote?
Last week, Frank Tanabe died at 93 at a Honolulu hospice facility. During World War II, Tanabe was among 100,000 Japanese-American confined to internment camps. After his release he volunteered for the military and because he spoke English and Japanese, he worked in the Army's Military Intelligence Service. Last year, he received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service.
On Oct. 17, as he lay dying of inoperable liver cancer, his daughters helped their father perform his last act of patriotic duty - by assisting him in filling out an absentee ballot.
Will his ballot count Nov. 6?
Probably not. But as an example of the right thing to do, it sure counts for something.
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Former Tulsan and election observer Richard Soudriette in Africa. Courtesy